Helping Grandparents Connect
(Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Walton’s book “Coloring Outside Autism’s Lines: 50+ Activities, Adventures and Celebrations for Families with Children with Autism,” Sourcebooks, November 2010. The author offers advice to those who want to develop a relationship with a child with special needs. Parents may want to send it to relatives and close friends.)
To Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles and Friends:
Don’t expect the child’s parents to do all the work of connecting you with this child. A relationship cannot be formed for you prior to your arrival and transitioned over when you visit. It is up to you to discover ways to interact and to ask questions that will help facilitate a relationship. Assume that everyone wants to help you form a bond, but they cannot do it for you. Your time, interest, and effort are the key tools that the situation requires.
Before an out-of-town visit happens, ask about the child’s overriding interests of the moment. Don’t wait until you arrive to find out he loves trains, the Teletubbies, or swimming, or he has been horseback riding every week since you last came to visit. If you have that information before you arrive, you can be prepared to use it to form a connection.
Don’t assume your grandchild can interact with you on a general level until you find specific mutual interests. When a child has autism, interacting is one of the hardest things for him to do. But if you are familiar with his interests before you visit, you can enter his world successfully.
If, for example, you learn the child you are visiting loves the Teletubbies, you needn’t be discouraged if you don’t know what the Teletubbies are. Your first stop should be your local bookstore. A clerk can show you picture books associated with the interest. It doesn’t matter if the interest is a category, a character, or an activity. There are few fascinations a child can have that will not be represented at a bookstore.
Whether you want to buy a book associated with that interest as a gift to break the ice, or you just want to browse to get yourself up to speed, you will come away with a better understanding of the preoccupation. Don’t settle for the answer if you’re told this child “isn’t interested in anything.” It is possible his parents have become so accustomed to watching his pursuits day in and day out that it has stopped seeming worth mentioning. But indeed, watching television is an interest. So is pulling leaves off trees, jumping up and down on a trampoline, or flipping a rubber toy in the air. It’s what you do with the knowledge that makes the difference.
Probe gently if information doesn’t come easily. What does your grandchild like to do when he first comes home from school every day? What is his favorite thing about weekends? What will he do if you give him an hour of free time?
Listen carefully to the answers. No activity or interest is too small. Everything he loves to do has the potential to be an opening for a loving connection.
Taking a Fallback Position
If you are hitting roadblocks or having trouble finding an interest you can develop, fall back to finding ways to help the child’s parents. Whether it is immediately apparent or not, having a child with autism can make for a complicated and sometimes difficult life. Ask if there are any errands you can run to help out. Don’t tell the family what you want to do to help, ask what would be helpful.
Here are some things you can suggest:
• Can I bring dinner home as a take-out order from a favorite place?
• Can I do some grocery shopping?
• Does an adult need to stay home while therapists come to the house? I can serve in that capacity.
• Does your car need gas? I can take it over for a fill-up.
• Can I offer you my car to use for errands, while you take yours in for a tune-up?
• Can I babysit, perhaps after the kids have fallen asleep so you can go out together, perhaps catch a movie?
It may be that connecting directly with the child must wait for a future visit. But every year you’ll find time and maturity have made a difference, and each visit offers a brand new chance to connect. Keep trying!
Susan Walton lives with her family, including a child with autism, in Northern California. She founded PPSNK (Peninsula Parents of Special Needs Kids), a group where families can connect and enjoy recreation and adventure with their kids in spite of the reality that “into each life, a little rain must fall.”