One of the most common questions I get asked is how long does it take until parenting a child with autism makes sense?
With autism, a lot of traditional parenting strategies go out the window. "Use your words" is no good for a non-verbal or limited communication child, the "time out" can be a reward for a child who prefers not to interact with others and tantrums can sometimes last for days, making "wait it out" a less than effective strategy.
Before a child is diagnosed, most parents are combing through the Internet, books and magazines, desperate for anything which can help them. Yet somehow, the strategies which are touted as "fool-proof" either don't work or make things worse. Parents doubt themselves and feel helpless and hopeless. They don't realize they're reading from the wrong manuals.
Once a parent has the right manuals, things begin to make sense very quickly. Something as simple as a visual schedule can make a tantrum-inducing routine suddenly flow smoothly. Knowing that a child cannot tolerate inconsistency allows parents to prepare for special occasions. Using Picture Exchange Communication can allow a non-verbal child to finally ask for the milk rather than a frustrating game of guess-the-charade.
It's not instant and there is still a disproportionately high amount of work to be done, but it happens more quickly than a parent can imagine when they're in the pre-diagnosis stage. I usually tell parents that when they look up 6 months from now and compare where they are with where they were, they'll be amazed how far they've come. Knowing what we're dealing with makes all the difference in the world.
Emily Perl Kingsley wrote an analogy comparing having a child with autism to landing in Holland after boarding a plane to Italy. It's a good metaphor for the experience.
No one in their right mind would expect anyone to navigate Holland using Italian language books and maps. It would be frustrating and demoralizing. The tourist would begin to feel stupid and blame themselves.
But if you give that same tourist a Dutch phrase guide and a map of Amsterdam, they would suddenly begin to be able to move around with confidence. They would understand they weren't crazy or stupid, they were just looking at the wrong map.
This is why I'm a strong supporter for early diagnosis. The faster we can get parents the right maps, the easier their lives and their children's lives will be.