By Jean Stern
Being a grandparent is complex: there’s so much we’d like to do, and not enough time. As the grandmother of three young children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum, I have to set priorities to help focus my time and energy. How do we respond to the joys and challenges of Asperger's in our multigenerational family?
Our family motto: safe, calm, love & support
Grandparent to grandchild
- As grandparents, we can give our grandchildren the gift of our time and our full attention. I’m talking about uninterrupted time, during which your grandchild can feel calm, safe, and special: times of relaxation when you follow the child’s lead and let the child set the agenda. Spending such quality time together can bring both parties joy, and increase the child’s capacity to grow and learn new things.
- All children, and particularly children on the spectrum, need the support of an adult’s guidelines and routines. They need structure and predictability during their visits. Our children can have trouble with understanding time, and with making transitions from one activity to another. When my granddaughter arrives for a visit, we light the Princess candle. At the end of the visit, we put it out until her next visit. Small family rituals like this help our grandchildren befriend time.
- Our grandchildren also have trouble understanding boundaries. They don’t mean to offend, but because they lack social awareness, they often invade the boundaries of family members (as well as those of classmates and teachers). We need to teach them, with patience and in clear language, how to respect the personal space, feelings, and roles of other people.
- Because of their unique nature, our grandkids require that we keep learning new skills—but where and how? Welcome to Grad School—a.k.a. AANE University! AANE is the place where grandparents can learn from experienced professionals, other grandparents and family members, and—a uniquely valuable resource—from adults with Asperger Syndrome—who can often tell you things your grandchildren are not yet able to express. Come to the grandparent support group, join the online grandparent forum, read Parenting without Panic, or just pick up the phone and talk to an AANE staff member. Grandparents who live far from the AANE office should be brave and try taking a webinar—it’s easier than you think!
Grandparent to parent
- If it takes a village to raise a neurotypical child, it takes even more effort and resources and support to raise a child with Aspergers (AS). Our adult children may often need our help—but where is that fine line between helping, and interfering or taking over? We need to be sure our help is wanted, and offered in a non-judgmental way. Because of our grandchildren’s special needs and atypical behaviors, our adult children may often face criticism of their parenting skills—so they don’t want to feel criticized by us! They may want us to listen without judging, and to validate their feelings—which may include frustration, confusion, or pride in a child’s accomplishments other people might consider small.
- If parents are willing to accept it, we can offer them precious respite: time for them to recharge their batteries, re-establish their boundaries, and remember that they have a personhood beyond their roles as mother or father. One mother I coached expressed it this way: “I need a break so I can see the loving and lovable child in there again.” You, the grandparent, may be able to provide the childcare that allows a parent to attend a workshop at AANE, where the parent can get support and learn new strategies to help your grandchild.
- Raising children with AS is expensive. Parents alone may be unable to afford all the therapies, sensory integration equipment, books about a child’s special interest, or summer camp that a child needs. Therefore, many grandparents help their children and grandchildren financially—often at some sacrifice.
Grandparent to self
- We also need to recognize our own limits, and make sure people know and respect our boundaries. Children with AS have intense and varied needs—which can be hard for a parent to meet. Sometimes, exhausted parents may pass along to a grandparent the pressures they feel. While we gladly provide a lot of support, we may not always be able to solve a problem, or to provide all the money or childcare the family may need. Sometimes grandparents may need to say no.
- We need to cultivate their own lives, tend our own marriages or friendships, and give ourselves permission to take breaks. Saying “no” to an adult child’s (or a grandchild’s) request today may help you recharge your batteries enough so that you can say “yes” another day.
- When you hit a difficult issue, or are having trouble communicating with the other generation, it may be time to bring in some professional help. It could be a financial planner, a family therapist, or a behavioral therapist for the grandchild. Call AANE to talk over the family situation, and to get the names of skilled professionals who understand the impact AS has on all three generations of a family.