Babysitting any child can be challenging, and even more so when it comes to children with autism who often have special needs and requirements. This article explains everything you need to know about caring for children on the spectrum, while keeping them entertained and safe.
Children with Autism Think and Process Information Differently than Neurotypical Kids
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that significantly affects the way children process information. The thinking pattern of a child with autism typically involves:
- Thinking in images rather than in words (visual thinking)
- Learning and remembering seemingly irrelevant things, for example, trivia about specific interests (verbal and logical thinking)
- Processing details in order to understand concepts (bottom-up associative thinking)
- Organizing thoughts in a way that they can be easily replicated (pattern thinking).
The way the information is processed influences the way children on the spectrum experience the world and causes a range of social, communication, and behavioral difficulties. The severity of symptoms and level of functioning vary from child to child.
Before you start babysitting a child with autism, it is essential to have a basic understanding of the condition. Here’s what you need to know.
How to Babysit a Child Who Has Autism
Babysitting a child with autism can be a rewarding experience, but it is essential to be prepared to deal with the challenges that may arise.
Learn about autism
Gather as much information as you can about the condition. The more you know, the easier your babysitting task will be.
Quick facts about kids with autism
- Most children with autism engage in some form of repetitive or obsessive behavior, such as opening and closing doors, repeatedly pushing buttons, or lining up toys.
- Children with autism need structure and predictability in their day-to-day life. They often expect things to be done the same way, for example, putting their clothes on in the same order each morning or leaving the house in the same way every time.
- Transitioning to a new activity or moving to another setting may be challenging and the child needs to be prepared in advance.
- Handling more than one idea at a time is often difficult for a child with autism. It is important to speak in simple sentences and keep the conversation focused on one topic at a time.
- Some children with autism are non-verbal or have limited use of spoken language. They may communicate by using simple sounds or signs, made-up language, or echoing what others are saying (echolalia).
- Many children on the autism spectrum don’t have the capacity to get the nuances of language and take what others say literally. For example, they may not know what you mean when you say “it’s raining cats and dogs”.
- Children with autism may not be able to understand or respond to gestures and facial expressions like a frown or a smile.
- Some children are only interested in talking about their favorite subject and don’t readily engage in conversations.
Plan a pre-babysitting visit
Children with autism may easily get overwhelmed by new people. Getting to know you is crucial for establishing a new routine and setting their expectations. In addition, a short pre-babysitting visit to the child’s home will allow you to observe how the parents interact with the child and to ask any questions you might have.
Learn the child’s specific requirements
The parents will be able to provide the essential information about any special requirements to ensure that the child is safe and that you are both having a good time.
Ask the following questions:
- What are the child’s routines?
- Does the child have any sensory issues?
- Does the child follow a restricted diet, for example, a gluten-free autism diet?
- Are there any food allergies or food aversions that I need to take into account?
- How can I best manage problematic behaviors and tantrums?
- Whom should I contact in case of an emergency?
Follow the familiar daily routine
Most children on the autism spectrum have specific preferences and routines. Even a slight change will often lead to meltdowns, self-injurious behaviors (hair pulling, biting, head banging), or aggression toward others. Your presence may lead to confusion, so make sure to learn about the child’s daily routines and try to stick to them as much as possible.
Respect the common needs of children with autism
Below, we list some general guidelines you should follow when babysitting a child with autism, regardless of their age and level of functioning.
- Allow the child to approach you before you take the lead.
- Take it slow at first.
- Start by observing and listening to the child to ensure that your approach will be suitable.
- Be patient. It might take some time for the child to become comfortable around you.
- Be consistent so the child will always know what to expect.
- Show your interest by engaging with the child as much as possible.
- Be respectful of the child’s preferred way of doing things
- Follow the set routines.
- If you take the child out to a park or on a walk, stay in a familiar area to avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety. Be aware that many children engage in elopement where they run away from their caregiver. This option may not be best for all children.
- Avoid hugging or patting the child on the back. Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities and don’t like to be touched.
- Some children on the spectrum avoid eye contact. Don’t ask them to look at you if it makes them uncomfortable.
- Ignore the child’s attention-seeking behavior, such as being very loud, screaming, dancing, or jumping.
- Don’t bring anyone else around while babysitting. Children with autism get easily overwhelmed in the presence of new people.
- Stay positive and keep in mind that it takes a lot of patience to care for a child with autism spectrum disorder.
Connect with the child
Children with autism may have difficulties forging relationships. However, if you want to ensure a positive babysitting experience, it is essential that you make a connection with the child.
Most children on the spectrum have a narrow area of interest that they know in detail, whether it is cars, trains, animals, or their favorite show. Finding out what this interest is will enable you to bond with the child more easily.
Communication is key
If the child you babysit is non-verbal or not using full sentences, you still need to communicate to avoid frustration and meltdowns. Think about what you want to tell the child and say it slowly and in a few words to make processing the information easier. Check with the parents whether there are any special tools they use, such as sign language, picture cards, or communication boards.
Help the child self-regulate
Self-regulation is the child’s ability to be aware of and manage their emotional state. To help the child self-regulate, you must take into account their sensory needs. For example, certain sounds that you may find perfectly normal will seem unbearably loud to children with autism and provoke meltdowns and tantrums.
Ask the parents about any special activities the child can do in order to stay calm in a stressful situation. For example, you may want to keep a stress ball, fidget toy, bubbles, or other soothing items close at hand and bring them out when the child needs a distraction.
Avoid power struggles
Sometimes the child will resort to negative behaviors and draw you into a power struggle that will only make things worse.
To avoid power struggles, make sure to:
- Plan activities in advance
- Use visuals
- Offer choices
- Stick to routines
- Remain consistent
- Maintain a positive attitude.
You don’t always have to engage directly in an activity with the child. It may be enough to observe and follow their lead until the child starts feeling at ease and wants to interact with you.
Use active play or crafts
Find out what activities the child enjoys. Ask the parents to prepare a selection of their favorite toys, games, and activities and make them easily accessible.
Multisensory toys help enhance motor skills in children with developmental delays. You may also want to choose activities that will show the child how to follow instructions and directions, such as freeze dance, playing tag, Follow the Leader, or Simon Says. A variety of crafts will also help the child learn how to better process sensory information while having fun.
It is important that the child gets enough motion during the day. Physical activity can significantly boost social interaction and communication skills in children with autism, in addition to improving their motor skills and reducing challenging behaviors.
Help the child fall asleep
Sleep problems are very common in children with autism due to mutations in genes that govern the sleep-wake cycle and affect levels of melatonin. Most children on the spectrum suffer from one or more of the following:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Restless sleep
- Poor sleep quality
- Waking frequently
- Not being able to fall back to sleep.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to help the child fall asleep, whether you are putting them to bed at night or they are just taking a nap:
- Help the child relax by reading a story or turning on calming music.
- Switch off the television, video games, and phones in advance to help the child calm down.
- Make sure that the room is cool, dark, and quiet to avoid any sensory issues that may prevent the child from falling asleep.
- Follow the established routine and always put the child to bed at the same time.
- Create a predictable transition from waking to sleeping hours. Give the child a warning several times before starting the bedtime routine using visual timers or alarms.
- Use visual supports such as schedules and timetables. This way, the child will get a better understanding of what you expect them to do.
- Use a social story—a simple story written from the child’s perspective—to explain why it is important to sleep and what actions they are expected to take.
Learn how to manage meltdowns in children with ASD
Managing challenging behaviors, such as meltdowns and aggression, is one of the most difficult aspects of babysitting a child with autism.
Children on the spectrum may display negative behaviors for different reasons, for example:
- They have trouble grasping what is happening around them.
- They don’t understand what other people are saying.
- They don’t understand what others are communicating non-verbally, through gestures or facial expressions.
- They have difficulty communicating their own wants and needs.
- They are overwhelmed by their surroundings. Many ordinary smells, sounds, sights, and tastes that aren’t always obvious don’t go unnoticed by a child with autism.
All of these elements may lead to frustration and stress, expressed through tantrums, shouting, hitting, or self-injury. They can create uncomfortable or dangerous situations for the child if the stressful situation continues.
It is important that you are prepared to manage meltdowns. Ask the child’s parents to leave you detailed information on what types of situations can upset the child, what challenging behaviors you can expect, and what you need to do should they arise.
Tips on managing meltdowns
You can sometimes prevent meltdowns by identifying and avoiding difficult situations that trigger them, such as sudden loud noises or taking a different route to the park. However, these situations are not always avoidable and you need to know what to do in advance.
To calm the child during the meltdown, you may try the following:
- Distract the child. However, you should keep in mind that this method will only work if the meltdown has not yet escalated.
- Make the child feel safe and stay as close as the child is comfortable with.
- Help the child cope by doing breathing exercises, listening to calming music, using noise-canceling headphones, or playing with a fidget toy.
- Make sure to explain your actions before you do anything, for example, hold the child’s hand to keep them safe.
- Remain calm. Bear in mind that any sudden movement on your part can worsen the situation and escalate the aggressive behavior.
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.
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