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Mobilizing Support for Autistic Grandkids

Grandparents play a vital role in helping children and parents cope with ASD. Here's how you can help.

Pat and Jim Stutz first noticed that their grandson’s development seemed different from most kids' when he was about 2 years old.

See also: Grandparents Often ID Autistic Traits.

"Initially, we thought Jeremy might have a hearing problem because of the way he rubbed the side of his head on the carpet," Pat said. "And sometimes, he would just keep running full speed across the room at the large-screen TV and slamming right into it. He also didn't seem to be talking like our kids did at his age.”

Autism Survey: Mobilizing Family Support

Families dealing with Autism Spectrum Disorder need a large support network. — Photo by Timothy Archibald/Redux

Like many grandparents, the Stutzes were initially in denial. "We had rose-colored glasses on because we wanted to believe that everything would be OK,” Pat recalls.

But after spotting several other red flags, Jeremy’s parents began trying to find out what was wrong.  After many doctor visits and consultations,  the Stutzes’ grandson was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which was heartbreaking for the entire family.  I know how hard it was because Jeremy’s grandparents are my aunt and uncle.

Our family is one of millions: According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control, issued in December 2009, autism is a rapidly growing problem, and 1 in 110 children in the United States is diagnosed with ASD. Boys are at higher risk for autism, with 1 in 70 boys having an ASD diagnosis.

Like many families, the Stutzes offered vital support to Jeremy and his parents. They moved just a few blocks away so they could be nearby to help — a decision their daughter-in-law really appreciates.

"I trust having family members take care of my son because of the bond they have with him,” says Laura Stutz. "To have a stranger come in and babysit my child, who cannot communicate, is just unimaginable."

Family Strain

Still, dealing with an autistic child can be emotionally draining for grandparents, too.   

“Unless you’re close to it, it’s hard to imagine how much hard work is involved,” Jim Stutz said. "Cleaning up after him, trying to prepare food for a restricted diet, dealing with so many medicines and treatments, and just keeping up with him is physically tough."

These strategies can make it easier for all involved:

Voice your concerns.  If you suspect something is amiss with a granchild’s development, talk to his parents.  Early diagnosis is crucial for treatment. Be supportive of them if they are concerned.

Research the disorder.  Learn as much as you can about ASD. There are new treatments and approaches all the time. Share what you learn, but remember — the parents make the decisions about their child.

Be supportive.  Learn about the treatment plan your child chooses for your grandchild. Ask about behavioral therapy and any restricted diet approaches the parents are using and apply them when you interact with your grandchild.

Make your own home safe. Create a therapeutic atmosphere for your grandchild when he is in your home. Have some appropriate toys or equipment available.

Keep family gatherings simple. Children with autism usually need more quiet and routine. Plan for a quiet place where your grandchild can get away from the crowd and do a favorite activity when he needs a break.

Choose the right gifts. Your grandchild might benefit from special equipment or therapeutic tools, such as a weighted vest or special swing. Find out what will help your grandchild’s treatment and give those items as gifts.

Offer to babysit.  Parents of an autistic child will appreciate the break. Remember, you are a part of his treatment plan when you provide respite for his parents.

Be open and receptive. Don’t push your grandchild. Most children with autism do not want to be approached — they like to make the first move.

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