The years from babyhood until school starts are often described as the most crucial in any child’s life.
As parents, it is easy to panic when you hear that these years are when the brain does the most development. Please rest assured that the brain develops all throughout life, and whilst we know that the early years are important, learning and support happens throughout a person’s lifetime.
We often think that the early years are all about early intervention, and that’s vital. Read all about early intervention.
On this page, we take a closer look at some of the common concerns and opportunities for families of young children on the spectrum.
We know this can be a huge issue for families.
How many times have you heard comments such as:
- “He’ll eat when he gets hungry enough. No child will starve themselves.”
- “When I was young, we were expected to eat what was on our plates. She’s just spoiled.”
- “Most kids are fussy. He’ll grow out of it.”
The reality is that children with autism can struggle with food issues that go well beyond mere “picky eating.”
Adolescents and adults can struggle as well.
Some of these challenges might be related to sensory issues, motor issues, or gastrointestinal problems, while some might be behavioural. Or a combination of these things.
Don’t hesitate to talk to your early intervention service provider about making eating a central part of your child’s program.
Overcoming the worst of picky eating can have such a positive effect on your child’s health and wellbeing, as well as reduce the family’s stress levels!
The pieces below offer some good “food for thought” on how to address these challenges.
Whilst individual feeding experts might differ with some of their specific strategies, there seems to be general consensus on this point: If you have ongoing concerns about your/your child’s issues with food, seek professional support.
From the Interactive Autism Network: “Feeding Problems In Children With Autism:”
It’s quite normal for children on the spectrum to be toiled trained later than usual. Many parents would advice you not to stress about this too much and to concentrate on other things first.
But when the time comes for your child to learn to use the toilet, you might well need extra help. Again, your early intervention provider should be able to make this part of the program. There are also some valuable resources on line to help parents and carers support their child (see below).
The vast majority of children learn to use the toilet independently, but it can take a lot of hard work to succeed.
Toilet Training For Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder – Raising Children’s Network
Toilet Training: 10 Step Habit Training Autism Discussion Page – Toilet Training
Everyone in the world has stims, most people are just good at hiding them in public!
Stims or ‘stimming’ are repetitive or unusual body movement or noises, and it’s very common for people on the spectrum.
Stimming can include things like rocking back and forth, mouthing or chewing on objects, repetitive behaviours like flicking switches, hand flapping or spinning.
Stimming might occur when a child (or adult) is overwhelmed by sensory input or is anxious. Stimming can also be used to express excitement or joy. Unless a stim is self injurious (e.g. biting self), it will not harm the child — and it could be providing a very important outlet to soothe or reflect their emotions.
However, often stimming can get in the way of learning more functional skills.
It often proves futile to attempt to eradicate stims, so it’s best to work out what purpose they are serving and then to find more constructive ways to soothe the senses.
Self-stimulatory behaviour and autism spectrum disorder – Raising Children Network
Autism and stimming: What is it, and how to reduce stimming that’s harmful – Child Mind Institute
Many children with autism have issues with sleep, whether it’s irregular sleep patterns, not staying in bed, issues self-settling, the list goes on.
Often the same strategies you would use on your other children can be applied here, and at other times the issues can be more complex and it’s best to seek the help of a professional (e.g. paediatrician, psychologist or other professional who works with sleep disorders in children)
Some tips to help encourage good sleep habits
- Make sure they get enough physical exercise during the day so they are tired at night
- Try to avoid giving them fluids closer to bedtime
- Turn off televisions, ipads, games and other devices at least an hour before bed
- Choose a reasonable bed time based on their age
- Establish a routine – Dinner, bath, story, brush teeth, toilet, sleep
- Be consistent!
- Create a comfortable environment – their favourite toy, blanket, soft lighting, door slightly open / or completely closed. Whatever helps to make them feel safe and comfortable
- Once in bed there’s no getting out! If your child does get our of bed, quietly and calmly walk them straight back, without any discussions or distractions along the way. Repeat this process as many times as required. By doing this they will learn that there is no alternative option.
Dealing with sleep difficulties in children with autism spectrum disorder – Raising Children Network
Absconding or Wandering
Children with autism often wander off or run away, and it can be an incredibly scary for parents and carers. They don’t necessarily understand the dangers involved, such as running out onto busy roads or jumping into water.
We can’t stress enough how important it is to teach your child not to wander off. The first thing you need to do is understand why your child is wandering off, what triggers this? Once you know what the triggers are, how does your child respond to these triggers, and what happens when they wander off.
If your child does abscond it’s important to seek professional help. Ask your early intervention service provider to include this in your child’s program as a priority.
Safety first, always! Some basic things you can do to help prevent wandering include
- Locking doors and keeping keys / locks out of reach
- Supervise your child whenever possible
- Fence your backyard
- Make sure you know the possible dangers in and around places you are visiting – e.g. Is there a lake near the picnic ground you’re visiting, is the backyard fenced at the friend’s house they are going to, can they easily access a main road
- Alert neighbours that your child wanders so they can keep an eye out for them, and give them some instructions on what to do if they find them
- Let anyone who looks after or works with your child know that you have concerns and ask them to be extra vigilant when with your child. Day care and school playgrounds should always be fenced and monitored by a teacher.
Wandering: autism spectrum disorder – Raising Children Network
Big Red Safety Toolkit – National Autism Association USA
Playing with friends
Encouraging play with friends and brothers and sisters should be a part of any early intervention program. Often there are many things that need to be taught before a child is ready for this though.
Setting up play dates can be very time-consuming and even stressful but it’s vital for a child to socialise with other children. Invest the time and find a relative or friend who is happy to help facilitate.
How to plan a special needs play date – From The Friendship Circle
Play dates – Autism Discussion Page
Attending childcare or preschool
Finding the right early learning environment for your child can be one of the most stressful things in the early years. All of our kids deserve a loving and welcoming educational setting, as do their parents. Aim high and look for the very best, with great teachers and a positive, encouraging atmosphere.
It’s vital for the early learning centre to work hand in hand with your early intervention program. Do not accept anything less!
The Raising Children Network has excellent pages dedicated to childcare and early learning for children on the spectrum in each state.
Making family life fun amidst it all
The early years can often seem so daunting and so scary… and that’s just for the parents. Imagine how it can feel for the child.
We encourage you to try and find humour in your lives and time for fun and tickles and songs and whatever makes you and your kids happy.
Remember that autism is just one part of your lives, and your child is a child first and foremost.
More helpful resources
IBehaviour Training – Online behaviour training specifically designed for parents. Training is delivered via video tutorial in individual skill specific modules. Topics include: Toilet training, Eating issues, play skills at home and using visual schedules IBehaviour Training
Autism Discussion Page Books – a two-book series by mental health expert Bill Nason.
1. The Core Challenges of Autism: A Toolbox for Helping Children with Autism Feel Safe, Accepted, and Competent
2. Anxiety, Behavior, School, and Parenting Strategies : A toolbox for helping children with autism feel safe, accepted, and competent Book depository