Your child's diagnosis is likely to affect the entire family in some way. Family therapist Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., LCSW, shares tips for parents, siblings and extended family members.

5 tips for parents

1. Create a team for your child.

Be your child’s best advocate. Stay informed. Take advantage of services that are available to you both locally and statewide. There are many professionals who can help and educate you and your family. Remember, it takes a village!

2. Practice self-care.

You are going to need resilience and resources for yourself. Don’t push your feelings away. Have compassion for yourself. It’s okay to seek professional help to process any conflicting emotions you may have.

3. Find joy.

Find joy in spending quality time with your children and your spouse. Try not to let autism consume every waking hour of your life. Look for joy in everyday experiences.

4. Celebrate small victories.

Love your child and take great pride in each accomplishment. Focus on what they can do instead of making comparisons with a typically developing child. Love them for who they are rather than what you think they should be.

5. Build a community.

Get involved with the autism community. Don’t underestimate the power of this community. In the past years, the autism community has gained much knowledge and practical information which they would love to share with you.

You may be the captain of your team, but you can’t do everything yourself. Make friends with other parents who have children with autism and support each other. Connecting with other parents will enable you to give and receive support from families who understand your day-to-day challenges. It is empowering and productive to get involved with autism advocacy.

“Learning more about my child’s unique needs and abilities along with reaching out for support has enabled my husband and me to be better parents to our son and better partners for each other on this journey.”

5 tips for siblings

1. You're not alone.

Remember that you are not alone! Every family is confronted with life’s challenges… and yes, autism is challenging…but, if you look closely, nearly everyone has to face difficult family situations.

2. Be open.

Be proud of your brother or sister. Learn to talk about autism to your friends. If you are comfortable with the topic, they will be comfortable too. If you are embarrassed by your brother or sister’s differences, your friends will sense this and it will make it awkward for them. Like everyone else, sometimes you will love your brother or sister and sometimes you may not like him or her. It’s okay to feel your feelings. And often it’s easier when you have a professional counselor to help you understand them – someone who is here just for you!

3. Manage your feelings.

While it is okay to be sad sometimes that you have a brother or sister affected by autism, it doesn’t help to be upset and angry for extended periods of time. Remember your mom and dad may have these feelings too. It may be helpful to find a professional person to talk to your family about how autism affects all of you.

4. Spend quality time with your parents.

Spend time with your parents alone. It’s okay for you to want alone time. Having a family member with autism can often be very time-consuming and attention-grabbing. You need to feel important too. Remember, even if your brother or sister didn’t have autism, you would still need alone time with your mom and dad.

5. Share with your sibling.

Find an activity you can do with your brother or sister. You will find it rewarding to connect with your brother or sister, even if it is just putting a simple puzzle together. These shared activities will be something you both can look forward to!

“At first I felt lost and confused about my brother but now that my parents have helped to explain things to me, I can be a better big sister and help my brother when he needs it.”

5 tips for extended family members.

1. Connect.

Ask how you can be helpful. Your efforts will be appreciated, whether it means taking care of the child so that the parents can go out to dinner, or raising money for the special school they attend. You can organize a lunch, a theatre benefit, a carnival, a card game, or a bake sale. Your efforts will be appreciated more than you can imagine.

2. Find support.

Seek out your own professional support if you find yourself having a difficult time accepting the fact that your loved one has autism. Be open and honest about the diagnosis. The more you talk about the matter, the better you will feel. Your friends and family can become your support system, but only if you share your thoughts with them.

3. Be judgment-free.

Put judgment aside. Consider your family’s feelings and be supportive. Respect the decisions they make for their child with autism.

4. Educate yourself.

Learn more about autism. There is promising research, with many possibilities for the future. Share that sense of hope with your family, while educating yourself about the best ways to help support your family.

5. Make time.

Carve out special time for each child. Children with autism thrive on routines, so find one thing that you can do together that is structured, even if it is simply going to a park for 15 minutes. If you go to the same park every week, chances are over time that activity will become easier and easier. It just takes time and patience. If you are having a difficult time trying to determine what you can do, ask your family. They will sincerely appreciate the effort that you are making.

“Talking to other grandparents helped me to feel part of a bigger community and to learn more about my granddaughter. I am now able to help my family the best I can and spend quality time with each of my grandchildren.”