As a mom of a 53-year-old adult autistic son and as a teacher, I consider building secure relationships with children with autistic children of any age to be vital.
As parents, we want to do the best we can for our children.
As teachers, we become surrogate parents to our students.
It is because of this role that Alma Mater, Latin for “other mother,” became the term used for schools that we attend.
Therefore, teachers as “other mothers” also want the best for our students.
As I have learned, as a parent and teacher, building secure relationships with autistic children is vital to enhance their upbringing like all other kids which is why I am sharing these 5 tips you need to know for building secure relationships with autistic children.
Becoming a Mom
On the night my son, Joe, was born, I was overwhelmed with a sense of awe and thankfulness.
That night, I promised myself to be the best mom I could be.
I immediately went into convulsions and was in and out of consciousness for three days.
I was not sure if this was a sign of things to come.
Was this situation telling me that being a mom would be a little more difficult than I thought?
Let’s Try That Again
Three days later, a nurse placed Joe in my arms.
I fell in love and, again, promised that I would try to be the best mom I could ever be.
No convulsions. Things were looking up.
“Easy as Pie”
As I held him in my arms, I thought, “This is easy. All I have to do is love him.”
Reality Sets In
In retrospect, I learned that it is not that simple. Especially if your child is autistic.
As he grew, I slowly began to realize that Joe was, in so many ways, not like other children.
However, I, very importantly, realized that Joe was in many ways just like other children.
He needed what every child and adult, for that matter, needs: LOVE.
Infants, children, and adults need to feel safe, secure, and loved.
These are not just nice to have. These are basic human needs. This is why building secure relationships with autistic children, just as with all children, is essential!
Secure relationships are the foundation for our child’s ability to attain self-confidence, self-esteem, self-respect, and, consequently, the respect of others.
Building secure relationships with autistic children are of paramount importance since often they are misunderstood.
Although they may not express themselves in the same way as other kids, they feel and empathize just like them.
Who Says It’s Important?
Two well-known and highly respected human development theorists, Eric Erikson and Abraham Maslow, make this sense of security a significant cornerstone of their theories.
Maslow considers a sense of security only second in importance to eating and sleeping.
For Erikson, security, established through trust, is the first and foremost goal in a child’s life.
Building secure relationships with autistic children, and children in general, enables them to discover their abilities, take risks, and become who the best versions of themselves.
The Five Things You Need to Know for Building Secure Relationships with Autistic Children
There are five essential components for building secure relationships with autistic children and secure relationships as a whole.
They are: love, trust, respect, honesty and communication.
Ultimately, love is the most crucial aspect of parenting, teaching, of life itself.
It is important to express love, caring, and sincere approval to all children, including our autistic children.
Though they may not respond in expected ways, our autistic children do feel emotions and empathy.
During a meeting years ago, a social worker related to me that autistic children and adults don’t feel emotions.
My hair stood up in horror!
After I settled down, I looked her in the eye and told her that autistic children and adults DO feel emotions.
They just have difficulty expressing emotions.
Yes, a lot of practice is needed to interpret the subtle expressions of emotion from autistic individuals. Still, it is required if we are to develop a genuine relationship with them.
This social worker did not understand this. Many people are similarly misinformed.
Building secure relationships with autistic children is one way of helping your child overcome these prejudices and be comfortable as themselves.
Pay Attention to the Behavior
Without expressing emotions verbally, Joe shows emotion and empathy behaviorally.
A few years ago, on a snowy afternoon, while visiting relatives in Chicago, Joe was walking in the downtown area with a friend.
He met a homeless man who had no socks. The man was freezing.
Joe stopped, removed his socks, and gave them to the homeless man.
When asked about his missing socks, he said in a matter of fact tone of voice, “I gave them away. I have more at home.”
Barely a flicker of emotion on his face. His behavior said it all.
Subtle changes in facial expression are clues to their emotions.
Watch their behavior. Actions speak louder than words.
A Lost Relationship
It takes time, patience, and understanding, building secure relationships with autistic children.
Due to Joe’s inability to interact and react to his father in expected ways, his father never seemed to develop a secure relationship with Joe.
Joe’s father was not able to overcome, understand, and accept his son’s different type of behavior, especially his lack of expected responses.
This lack of a close, secure relationship enabled Joe’s father to walk away from his only child.
Unfortunately, Joe’s father passed away, never knowing how truly exceptional his son is.
This is the ultimate loss we may suffer by not taking time, being patient, and understanding our autistic children.
Unconditional love is love without “strings attached.”
Unconditional love enables our children to continue achieving Erikson’s life goals by exploring their world and developing personal abilities/skills without fear or shame.
The receiving of unconditional love is imperative for our children to be able to love themselves, feel self-esteem, and self-worth, as Maslow indicates in his hierarchy of needs.
The basis of trust is knowing that someone is there to help when we are in need.
Infants, children, and adults put out a “call” for assistance when they need help.
Consistently answering the call helps the ones in need feel safe—there is someone out there to give a helping hand.
When an infant cries, we feed or change them.
When a child fails, we help them learn from mistakes.
When an adult is depressed, we offer an ear to listen.
Parents and teachers want respect from their children and students.
However, respect is a two-way street. When we give respect, we receive it.
Children want to be valued. Respect is a way of appreciating a child.
We value their effort, not just their results.
As parents and teachers, we may feel the need to over inflate evaluations of a child’s abilities to not hurt their feelings.
While being conscious of their feelings is essential, it is just as necessary to evaluate a child’s abilities realistically.
Realistic evaluation is the foundation of self-esteem and in achieving the respect of others.
We help develop self-esteem in our children and students when we “tell it like it is” but in gentle terms.
I remember telling Joe that he was great at doing a particular activity.
I wanted him to feel good about himself.
He looked at me and said, “You’re my mom. You have to say that. I want friends to say that.”
Well, that was a lesson learned. I realized then that I needed to be realistic with Joe.
Yes, I was his mom, but it also was my job to help him know himself.
If Joe was to value what I told him, I needed to be honest with him.
Honesty is critical for building secure relationships with autistic children.
Communication is perhaps the most important “building block” of relationships.
Communication in all of its varied forms is how we get to know each other.
For example, instead of just hearing someone speak to us, actively listening to them fosters more in-depth communication.
Communication is so vital with autistic children and adults.
Being genuinely engaged with each other allows us to get to know and respect each other.
Differences Do Make a Difference
Characteristics of autism can cause difficulty in developing secure relationships.
- Sensory sensitivities, problems with communicating thoughts, emotions, and needs, inconsistent eye contact, lack of focus in areas other than interest areas, are just a few roadblocks to consider.
When my autistic son, Joe, was an infant, he had an extreme sensitivity to touch.
When Joe woke up at night for a feeding, I initially picked him up and cuddled him.
That was not such a good idea as he cried louder at my touch.
I eventually learned to stroke his cheek lightly to let him know that I was there and getting ready to feed him.
Years later, I learned this behavior was due to sensory sensitivity.
Cuddling hurt him.
Learning to soothe him with a light touch allowed our relationship to develop.
- Depending on where they are on the spectrum, autistic infants, children, and adults do not respond to others, including parents and teachers, in the same, expected ways as others do.
As with Joe’s father, this can be detrimental to developing a good relationship with our autistic child and in assessing our parenting and teaching skills in a realistic light.
- Autistic children and adults can be overwhelmed by the sounds and visual stimuli in their environment.
To the dismay of others, they may shut down because they no longer can tolerate the assault on their senses.
A quiet place in the home or classroom is helpful.
- Autistic children have difficulty interpreting facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
These difficulties hamper understanding the intentions of others.
Autistic children need our facial expressions, words, and tone of voice to communicate the same consistent message.
While teaching special needs students, I observed that they experienced less confusion in understanding my message when doing this.
Insights as a Mom
According to social psychologist Charles Cooley, our parental view of our children becomes their view of themselves.
This Looking Glass Self theory begins in infancy and can shape self-concept, self-esteem, and self-respect.
It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Focusing on our children’s good points rather than their negative ones is critical in developing a positive attitude toward and pride in our children, which is the basis for a secure relationship.
Sharing our insights with teachers and support staff goes a long way in helping them to understand our children better.
Insights as a Teacher
Our role as teachers is more vital in developing secure relationships than we may think.
We not only can develop secure, caring, and understanding relationships with our students, we can also help parents do so.
As a teacher, at the beginning of each school year, I would write what I liked/loved about each student.
At parent conferences, I always began the discussion with what I loved most about their child.
The smiles on their faces, the sighs of relief were priceless.
They understood that I cared about their children, that I saw value in their children.
We became a team.
As a mom, this is what I so wanted and needed to hear from Joe’s teachers.
Importance of a Teacher’s View
Joe’s father attended two parent conferences for Joe.
During each of those conferences, the focus was on Joe’s difficulties. Understandable.
After these two experiences, his father refused to attend any other conferences.
He commented that it was too depressing to hear what the teachers had to say about Joe.
By emphasizing the child’s good points first, teachers can help a parent see their child in a more positive light, which, in turn, can help the parent develop better relationships with their children.
Hearing more positives about Joe could have been instrumental for Joe’s father to accept Joe’s differences better.
The Greatest Gift
Unconditional love from parents and unconditional caring from teachers are the ultimate building blocks for strong, valuable relationships.
The same is true for building secure relationships with autistic children.
Unconditional love, whether giving or receiving it, for an autistic child may be challenging at times, but it is astonishingly rewarding.
What is beautiful about unconditional love is that when we give it, we receive it.
It is the greatest gift we as parents and teachers can give to ourselves.
Expressing Unconditional Love
Expressing love to someone who cannot show it back to you is difficult.
Smiling even though you might not receive a smile back, hugging even though you might not get a hug back, is not in vain.
A typical response is to give up. Just forego any expression of affection.
However, just because they don’t express it doesn’t mean they don’t feel it, don’t appreciate it, don’t need it.
No matter how discouraging it might be not to receive the expected response, don’t give up.
Our relationship with our children is at stake.
Worth the Wait
I wanted Joe to know I loved him—no matter what.
I happen to be a person who shows love and affection with hugs.
Hugging, unfortunately, was not Joe’s favorite activity.
However, life without hugging my only child was unacceptable to me.
As soon as Joe could tolerate touch, I hugged him lightly and often.
I took his little arms and put them around me and gave myself a small squeeze.
I just kept doing this year after year.
I believed if I kept hugging him while telling him I loved him, Joe would know he was loved and would eventually learn to show affection, and hug me back.
Joe did learn to put his arms on my shoulders when I hugged him.
Then, one day as I hugged Joe, and he had put his hands on my shoulders, I felt a little squeeze from him.
Oh, wait. Could this be real? Could this be a hug?
Yes, it was. It was a hug!
It took 42 years, but I finally got my hug!
Still, when I hug Joe, he mostly keeps his arms on my shoulders, but every once in awhile, when I hug him, Joe will put his arms around me and give a little squeeze.
My heart sings!
3 Relationship Insights I Learned from My Autistic Son
- Building a secure relationship is a process. It takes time and effort.
- I learned to love without a display of love in return, which brings a sense of freedom from expectations.
- I learned patience for the emotional timetable of others.
Hindsight is “20-20.”
Building a secure relationship with Joe was not as easy as I at first thought it would be.
So much about him was different. I had a lot to learn.
It was important to me and essential for Joe to have the best relationship with him I could have.
The most important lesson learned?
Never Give Up: Our Children and Students are Worth It!
These 5 things you need to know for building secure relationships with autistic children make all the difference. As the lucky mom of a wonderful autistic son, I can promise you the effort pays back a hundredfold.
I hope my insights help you understand the importance of building loving and secure bonds with your autistic child.
Do you better understand how to create a lifelong relationship with autistic loved ones and students?
I would love to hear from you!
Carol Basile, Ph.D., is the mother of an adult autistic son.
She is an educator, school psychologist, and parenting group facilitator. Carol has been in the field of education for almost 40 years as a K-12 teacher, high school counselor, and school psychologist, specializing in at-risk children and adolescents.
Carol currently teaches psychology at a Southern California college and is the author of Against All Odds: Our Life Journey with Autism. She is also the author of The Draco Twins Make a Discovery and The Draco Twins Turn Bullies into Buddies, a children’s book series about differences. Her mission is educating people about autism and providing these 5 things you need to know for building secure relationships with autistic children,