You’re a pro at foster parenting. You’ve fostered more than 35 children and can give just about any parent starting this journey great advice. One day, you get a call from your caseworker about an opportunity to foster an autistic child – specifically one with Asperger’s Syndrome. Out of all of the children you’ve fostered, this is your first time caring for a child with this specific challenge. You’ve heard stories of people with autistic children, so you have an idea of what to expect when it comes to raising an autistic foster child. But you don’t know what it’s really like until he comes into your home.
Autism is a developmental disability that can be noticed within the first three years. It affects the functioning of the brain in three specific areas: impaired social function, impaired communication abilities and abnormal behavior. There is no clear cause for autism at this time, but there are factors that are associated with the increase in the disorder (e.g., drugs taken during pregnancy, infectious viruses, heredity). There is a large misconception that autism is also linked to childhood vaccinations. However, that theory has been disproved according to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Raising A Foster Child With Asperger’s Syndrome: Different Challenges
In 2014, data released from the CDC states that 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) have Autism Spectrum Disorder. Each child who has autism is unique, but there are shared characteristics. For example, he may have a difficult time interacting socially. Also, there are generally impairments in speech and language. Approximately 40 percent of children with autism never speak. Instead, they communicate by either acting out or making hand gestures. Those who learn to speak may use a speech pattern called echolalia, commonly known as parroting. This means to echo back or repeat words that have already been spoken.
But your autistic foster child with Asperger’s Syndrome faces different challenges.
He is high functioning, speaks very well and is highly skilled with numbers. He also has an excellent memory. When it comes to helping him with his homework, it’s not necessary. He is the one who always raises his hand to answer questions, but he does not consider other children who want to participate.
You begin to notice your foster child is more than anti-social. He is unable to effectively communicate with his other foster siblings. In fact, he often isolates himself because he likes his alone time. He is blunt and sometimes says things that are extremely offensive to others – and to you. He is not doing this to be disrespectful. He has a hard time understanding everyone else’s feelings. The added trauma of abuse and neglect has also increased his anxiety. He has difficulty trusting you are there to protect him because the adults in his life have not provided him with the security he needs.
Raising A Foster Child With Asperger’s Syndrome: Problems and Solutions
Your foster child with Asperger’s Syndrome needs to follow a strict schedule. Any deviation from what he regularly does can be very traumatic for him. Consistency is vital. If he enjoys an activity at a certain time each day, stick with it. There will be times, however, when he will not be able to follow his routine. It is likely that he will be very upset and act inappropriately. Depending on the severity of the behavior, you can either ignore it and allow him to work through it or establish consequences.
Being consistent will be tough in the beginning but helpful in the long run. Consistency will also help him unlearn any inappropriate behavior that began before coming into your home.
When he exhibits good behavior, you can encourage him by using positive reinforcement (e.g., taking him to the movies).
Being specific is also essential, particularly for children with Asperger’s. He needs you to be very clear about what you require of him. You cannot simply tell him to be good. Your foster child needs to know exactly what is expected. For example, instead of telling him to clean his room, give him clear instruction (e.g., pick up clothing from the floor, make the bed, etc.). He may not have had that teaching from his biological family. This will make enforcing rules more challenging, but the more you stick with it the more effective you will be.
Raising A Foster Child With Asperger’s Syndrome: Long-Term Commitment
The spectrum for autism is wide, and it’s very important to note that one solution will not work for every child. To ensure your foster child is receiving the proper treatment, it is important to work with his caseworker (Family Service Specialist).
Autistic children have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and are protected via the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Through this law, each child is assured free appropriate public education (FAPE) and integration into an environment that recognizes the special needs of a child without charging the family an extra fee. This allows autistic children the opportunity to attend school with their peers who are not disabled so their transition into adulthood will be easier.
Even though the symptoms of autism may decrease over time, there is no cure. Depending on where your foster child falls on the spectrum, he may always need some type of supervision.
New Jersey currently has the highest rate of autism in the nation. Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS) offers a course for licensed resource parents in New Jersey called Autism Across the Spectrum that discusses the different types of autism in detail and gives suggestions on how to help your foster child handle day-to-day challenges.
For information on nationwide support of individuals with autism, visit Autism Speaks.
The task is bigger than you expected. With the helpful tips, training and support you are receiving, you are prepared to face this and the other challenges that come with fostering an autistic child.
Salendria Mabrey is a Communication and Development Associate at Foster and Adoptive Family Services.