The other day, I was sitting with friends at a baby shower for a colleague. As the mom-to-be was opening her gifts, a good friend of mine who is the mother of two typical young boys asked me what advice I’d give a new mother. Without hesitation, I said, “Trust your gut.” I had given similar advice the night before to one of my online autism mom friends who was struggling with what was the right thing to do for her young son. Since children with autism don’t come with instruction manuals and don’t follow the patterns outlined in Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect series of parenting books, autism moms must rely on common sense and mothers’ instincts when it comes to raising their children. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years that I can pass along to other autism moms, hoping they can benefit from our experience.
1. Carry an inexpensive calculator with you at all times. The purpose of this handy gadget is not to solve mathematical problems but to solve the problem of a bored child with autism. From the time he was a toddler, if Alex became restless, the calculator kept him occupied and content better than any toy ever could.
2. Buy your child sunglasses in the summer (or in the fall when they go on sale) to wear year round. Sunglasses serve as much more than a fashion accessory; they also help children with autism deal with visual sensory overload. From the time Alex was a baby, he has worn sunglasses whenever he is outside to deal with the sun’s glare. In addition, he wore them when he was younger at the dentist to help him deal with the bright overhead light and to protect him from any splatter that might fly when his teeth were being cleaned. In addition, he sometimes still prefers wearing them inside stores where the subtle blinking of fluorescent lights bothers him. Plus, he just looks cool wearing them.
3. Always carry plastic bags with you. From toileting accidents to spilling drinks to chewing on shirt collars, our kids usually wind up with at least one piece of clothing that gets wet when they are out somewhere. Which brings me to another suggestion: always carry at least one complete change of clothes for any of the previously mentioned potential problems.
4. Teach your child as soon as possible how to swallow pills. Children with autism often gag with certain textures and flavors, so being able to swallow medicine and supplements in the form of tablets or capsules helps them tremendously. Once he learned how to swallow pills, Alex has never balked at taking his medicine or supplements, even when he was taking as many as four dozen pills a day at one point.
5. Check online nutritional fact sites for restaurants and food companies if your child is on a special diet. As Alex has been on the gluten-free and casein-free diet since he was seven, I have found many websites that list ingredients and common allergens (such as milk and glutens) helpful in figuring out what he can and can’t eat. This makes grocery shopping and going to restaurants much easier because I know what foods he’ll be able to eat before we ever leave the house.
Of course, these ideas are just a few of the many things we’ve learned over the years in dealing with Alex’s special needs. After I shared my advice with my friend at the baby shower, I wanted to know hers. She said, “Never put a baby in diapers that are too small” and then went on to tell a [now] funny story about a time when one of her sons overflowed his too-small diaper while they were at a restaurant. Remembering that sometimes I, too, pushed the limit with Alex’s diapers, thinking that there couldn’t be that much difference between 27 pounds and the stated size limit of 25 pounds, for instance, I had a few messes of my own to clean up at times, especially since he was in Pull-Ups much longer than most children. Experience is a good teacher, however, and I’m thankful for the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
“But true wisdom and power are found in God; counsel and understanding are His.” Job 12:13