The monumental stress of raising a child with autism can be eased by grandparents, who are often “ideally suited” to provide parents with practical, emotional, social, and financial support, scholars say.
Because most grandparents have already raised neurotypical children, they may be more attuned than young parents are to signs that a baby is developing atypically, writes sociologist Eva Kahana, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, in a recent article in an academic journal.
Concerned grandparents can help ensure that a child obtains an early diagnosis, which often makes treatment more effective.
But it’s not easy to access good autism treatment, which is why only about 10 percent of autistic children receive it, writes Kahana. For example, although research shows that one-on-one, school-based behavioral therapy is effective in helping autistic kids develop social and academic skills, few public schools offer it. Some children with autism also need occupational, physical, and speech therapy.
“Parents often accept limited services offered to the child at their local public schools, unaware of additional services that schools are required by law to provide to a child with a disability,” Kahana writes.
Here again, grandparents can help, she says. They may have the “time and motivation” to advocate for the child with the school district and research appropriate after-school and summer programs.
“Such consistent and high levels of involvement are seldom possible for other family members, such as aunts and uncles, who are typically dealing with demands of their own work and family.”
Grandparents can also protect autistic children and their parents from social isolation, says Kahana.
Some parents of kids with autism are so busy with daily caretaking that they don’t have time to nourish social ties, while others find themselves “shunned” by neighbors and friends.
By serving as a “bridge,” grandparents can keep parents connected with the world. They can educate the extended family about autism to dispel any fear and discomfort, write thank-you notes to relatives and friends who’ve shown particular consideration, and attend support groups on behalf of the middle generation.
Some grandparents are able to devote themselves part-time to the care of an autistic grandchild and his or her siblings, which may include both watching the kids at home and transporting them to activities and appointments. Young children may balk at unfamiliar sitters, but they’re “less likely to be agitated when the grandparents take over usual parental chores,” according to Kahana.
And some grandparents can afford to help the parents of kids with autism stay afloat financially, which may be crucial if the child’s treatment expenses are high or if a parent is unable to stay in the work force. Under some circumstances, grandparents can also establish a “special needs trust” on behalf of a grandchild that does not imperil the child’s current or future public benefits.
In addition to the links above, the following resources may be useful to grandparents of children with autism:
- Autism Roadmap, an exhaustive website produced by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for families affected by autism
- The Autism Science Foundation’s excellent reading list for families
- A Grandparent’s Guide to Autism, a brochure created by Autism Speaks
- The Grandparent Autism Network, a non-profit based in Orange County, California that connects and supports grandparents nationwide
- The Interactive Autism Network, which educates families about the latest relevant scientific research