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This is the second in a new series of articles aimed at helping families and grandparents learn more about autism, and also support the parents of a newly diagnosed autistic child, and of course the child themselves.

But firstly, why do we use the hashtag – #mygrandchildisautistic?! – with its implication of questioning surprise?

Because, to generalise, this is the first generation of grandparents whose grand-kids are gaining autism diagnoses in larger numbers than have been seen previously. Of course, many children are diagnosed and have been diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions (ASCs) over the years; but the current generation of parents in their thirties and forties would not have witnessed great numbers of children gaining autism diagnoses when they, the parents, were school age, in the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, a great many (current) grandparents did not see their own generation, or their children’s generation, gaining autism spectrum diagnoses in large numbers.

Today, many more parents are gaining their own autism diagnosis as adults, after researching ASCs in their children. But, thanks to a lack of exposure to diagnosed autism, and the fact that many grandparents don’t see their grandkids daily to witness the (often subtle) signs of autism in children, there can be a lack of understanding and knowledge when parents of newly diagnosed children share the news with families and care givers.

Here, we aim to answer come commonly asked questions that grandparents and other family members may ask of their young family members.

Surely behaviours like meltdowns are just like tantrums – how can we tell them apart?

Firstly, if you haven’t already, do read our ‘What is autism’ blog HERE, for some background info. To answer the above question – autistic meltdowns and tantrums certainly have similarities! Tantrums tend to be based on a want or need, and are likely to last until the want or need is met. The Royal College of Psychiatrists describes tantrums as – ‘Usually a short period of angry outburst or unreasonable behaviours like crying, screaming, shouting and throwing objects. Tantrums are a normal part of growing up. Between the ages of one and four years, most children will have tantrums. A battle between freedom and frustration can lead to tantrums.’

The National Autistic Society (NAS) describes autistic meltdowns as: ‘An intense response to an overwhelming situation. It happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses behavioural control.’

Autistic meltdowns may be compared to a panic attack. There’s less of an element of control, and if one looks closely at the child, one can generally see more despair and anxiety in their face than the pure frustration usually seen in tantrums. Dealing with tantrums differs with each family/parent, but anecdotally, they can sometimes be resolved by ignoring or (safely) leaving the child, and removing the ‘audience’. The child may recover quickly and may be able to discuss what occurred fairly quickly too.

Meltdowns differ usually, in that the last thing the autistic child may need at this time is abandonment. Equally, they need to work through it – requests to ‘get over it’, ‘stop crying’ etc are unhelpful. Many parents advise keeping the child (and others in the vicinity) safe, letting them know the parent or care-giver is close by, and then letting the meltdown take its course. The time to talk about what just occurred may not be straight after the meltdown; some children need more processing time. The NAS has advice on noticing meltdown triggers and working through autistic meltdowns HERE. Grandparents can work with the child’s parents to identify meltdown triggers, and keep interactions and activities low-key and ‘low demand’, if the child seems particularly anxious. Reducing ‘required’ eye contact may also help.

Keeping a close eye on routines (e.g. has the child kept his/her regular nap or bed time, for example?); sensory elements (has he/she been recently exposed to excessive socialisation with bright lights and loud sounds?); and any communication challenges (for example, using visual supports and keeping a chart or diary with images of planned activities can help reduce communicative stress in autistic children), could prove useful.

If the school and the wider family don’t see any autistic behaviours in the child, how can he / she be autistic?

It isn’t uncommon for autistic children to let their guard down (after school) when at home in their safe place with their parents and immediate family, and let their autistic behaviours ‘out’. Some children with ASC ‘mask’ their autism at school, intentionally or otherwise. (Is it really that different to an adult with anxiety, who feels somehow out of place (e.g. ‘imposter syndrome’) putting on a ‘work face’ and a work suit in the workplace? Many employees try to create a good impression, or try to impress peers/employers, and lots of us act differently when we are with different groups of people, trying to present the best version of ourselves.) Autistic people often ‘mask’ their limitations when in company, which can be exhausting.

So, the child that ‘masks’ may hold it together at school, then let their anxieties and emotions out at home, when they feel that it is safe to do so. A further aspect is that high functioning autism signs can be subtle, and many educators have simply not had the exposure to many children with ASCs. Just because they are teachers (or TAs), doesn’t mean they will recognise the sometimes subtle signs of autism seen in a child who is masking. Grandparents and care-givers can work with the parents to find out when the autistic child tends to be most anxious, and when they need space to ‘recalibrate’ and unwind. (Maybe there’s a particular post-school, low-key activity that the grandparent can do with the child, that is quiet and low-stress, such as rock painting or crafting? Generally, activities that are socially-led can ‘add’ to the demands and anxiety placed on the child at school in a given day, even if the activity appears to be fun.)

You can read the first feature in this #mygrandchildisautistic?! series, including the following questions, HERE

*Why does he / she need a label?
*What’s causing this current epidemic of autism diagnoses?
*All children his / her age do (certain autistic behaviours) – it doesn’t make them autistic… that’s normal isn’t it?
*It seems like the parents of the child let them dictate a lot, in terms of washing, bathing, food choices, and the clothes they wear. Why is this?

Please also visit the third BLOG in the series #mygrandchildisautistic?! to read answers to these questions –

*Why is routine so important to the autistic child?
*All children love birthday parties, fun social occasions and the like, don’t they? If the child is seemingly anxious and grumpy at such an occasion, they’re probably just tired, aren’t they?

Read our ‘Foundation Posts’ HERE. And check out our post on discovering ‘Aspie strengths’ HERE.

Please note that as we always say in each blog post, here at Spectra.blog, we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders/Conditions; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We do not claim to be experts on any form of autism. 


Also published on Medium.