Family relationships and autism spectrum disorder

Family relationships and autism spectrum disorder

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Building family relationships when you have a child with autism spectrum disorder

If you're raising a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), taking care of your family relationships is as important as taking care of any other aspect of your family life.

You can strengthen your family relationships and quality of life by:

  • focusing on relationships within your family
  • focusing on your family strengths
  • building your family's resilience.

The more you focus on these things, the more they become part of your thinking and behaviour. Building them into your everyday routines helps as well.

All families raising children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have tough times. But some families also say positive things can come out of these experiences. For example, some find it helps them learn humility, patience, compassion, acceptance and respect for others.

Focusing on your family relationships

All the members of your family have different relationships with each other. And these relationships are all equally important in building a strong family.

Adjusting to having a family member with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can cause family stress. Nurturing your family relationships can help with stress management.

If you and your family members can maintain healthy and positive relationships with each other, it will really help to make your family strong in times of crisis and in the long term.

Your relationship with your partner
As part of fostering all the relationships in your family, it's worth thinking about how having a child with ASD affects your relationship with your partner.

Raising a child with ASD can bring many positive changes to your relationship, but it's also likely to bring many new challenges. Being aware of these changes is a positive step towards dealing constructively with any relationship strains caused by your child's disability.

For example, additional medical bills and therapies can cause financial strain. Changing roles and responsibilities can lead to resentment if either you or your partner feel that responsibilities aren't being shared fairly.

To handle these strains and changes, it's important to make time for yourself and for each other and to seek help when you need it - whether it's formal respite services, a babysitter once a month, or counselling.

Although they do experience big challenges, couples in families of children with ASD say that their respect for each other and commitment remain strong. Read more about how to foster and maintain your relationship with your partner in our article on children with additional needs and parent relationships.

Your relationships with your children
It's important to work on fostering positive interactions between yourselves as parents and all of your children, including your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). You're a role model for how your children interact with each other.

Try to understand the feelings of the siblings of your child with ASD. When you make time to listen and share feelings with your other children, it can help siblings of children with disability cope.

For more information, read our articles on helping siblings of children with ASD, siblings of children with disability and supporting siblings of children with disability.

Your relationship with extended family
Don't forget about grandparents and other extended family members. Extended family can be an important resource for you and a valuable addition to your child's life.

It might take extended family some time to get used to the idea of ASD and what it means for your child. These family members have their own unique relationships with your child. In time, they'll find a way to adjust to your child's needs and their roles in your child's life.

There are many things you can do to help your family and friends learn more about ASD and how it might affect their relationships with your child. Read more in our article on family, friends and your child with ASD.

Focusing on your family strengths

When times are tough, you can improve your family relationships by shifting the focus to your family's strengths. This is instead of focusing on the negatives of family life with a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Here are some ideas for identifying and promoting your family strengths:

  • Think about your family's interests and the things you do that are fun for everyone. Identify as many as possible and write them down. It can be useful to have a few activities on your list that don't take up much time. This means you can still do something together as a family, even if you're pressed for time. Try to do one thing from your list every week. It might be as simple as a trip to the park or enjoying a meal together.
  • Get everyone in the family to write down one good thing about every other person in the family - for example, a skill or an interest. Include your child with ASD. Do this each night for a week. At the end of the week, share your ideas.
  • Choose one family member's strength - it could be time-keeping or being good at getting organised to go out. Think and talk about new ways the family can make the most of this strength during daily routines. Try these ideas out for one week, and then talk about the experience.

Building your family's resilience

Resilience is the ability to come through hard times feeling that you're stronger than before. Here are some ideas for promoting your family's resilience:

  • Identify family members' strengths and resources. These can help when you have to face difficulties associated with your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For example, your partner might be particularly good at calming your child with ASD. One of your other children might play well with your child with ASD. Be aware of situations when these strengths might come in handy.
  • Focus on staying connected and committed to each other. This gives everyone in your family a sense of belonging and loyalty to each other. For example, when one of your children explains something about ASD to someone else, this child is showing family loyalty.
  • Acknowledge your child's contributions to the family. This means identifying and acknowledging the contributions your child with ASD has made to your family. For example, you might notice that your children are more compassionate towards others because of having a sibling with ASD.
  • Encourage your family to work together as a group when roles and responsibilities change because of your child's ASD. For example, older children might get dinner ready if Dad's busy doing a therapy session with your child with ASD.
  • Work on communicating and problem-solving as a family. When a problem arises, talk it out and find a solution together. Pay particular attention to areas where you or your partner feel unhappy about how jobs are shared within the family, including child care, paid work and home duties.
  • Keep a positive outlook. Try to notice the times when things are going well between you as a couple, you as parents, and the children as siblings.