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Parenting an autistic child

Having an autistic child in the family can bring certain challenges for single parents. Every family is different, of course, but here’s some information you may find useful if you have an autistic child. 

You might also want to read our page for parents with a disabled child – there’s lots of general information there about financial and emotional support. You and your child may be entitled to benefits, depending on how their autism affects them.

If you think your child may be autistic but aren’t sure, you can get advice from the NHS about identifying autism and how to get a diagnosis

Support for yourself

Talking to your child about autism 

Common challenges with autism

Useful links

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Support for yourself

Autism is a spectrum, so every autistic child is unique and has their own specific needs. Your child might need little or no support, or they might need help from you every day. 

Some parents find it helpful to learn more about their child’s autism and their needs. The National Autistic Society runs support programmes for parents: there are 3 programmes depending on the age of your child. This can help you understand autism and your child’s behaviours to better support them.

If courses aren’t for you, you could dip in and out of Ambitious About Autism’s parent toolkit to use their tips and checklists if your child is under 5. 

It can also help to talk to other parents of autistic children – to get support, share experiences and feel less alone. Other parents may understand your worries and can share your joys, too.

Talking to your child about autism

Some parents talk to their child about autism as soon as they’re diagnosed. Others wait until their child is older. You’re best placed to decide when to speak to your child.

The NHS has tips on how to tell your child they’re autistic, including talking to them in a familiar place when you’re both calm. Some parents start the conversation by talking about differences. You could make a list of their strengths and weaknesses, and talk to your child about what they’re good at and what they find tricky. You could tell them there’s a name for this pattern of strengths and weaknesses: autism. 

If you think it would be useful to meet other families with autistic children, you can find support groups and social clubs through the Autism Services Directory.

If you have other children, you may want to tell them separately that their sibling is autistic. The National Autistic Society has a workbook called My Family Is Different. This might help them talk honestly about the effect autism has on their lives, as well as celebrate differences and encourage them to help each other.

Help with communication

Some autistic children are good communicators, while others find it hard to relate to and connect with others. You’ve probably worked out the best way to connect with your child. Here are some general tips, just in case:

  • Speak slowly and clearly 
  • Pause to give your child time to process what you’ve said 
  • Use simple gestures or pictures to support what you’re saying 
  • Reduce background noise and distractions 
  • Be specific with your questions: ‘did you enjoy your English class?’ may be easier to answer than ‘how was your day?’

The National Autistic Society has more advice on communicating with your child.

Common challenges with autism

Things like eating, sleeping, and anxiety are more likely to be challenging for children on the autism spectrum.

It can be helpful to keep a diary of when there are problems. This can help you work out what’s triggering the response and try to solve it. For instance, you might notice that your child has a bad reaction whenever a certain kind of food is on the plate. And if you remove or avoid that food, things are fine. 

Write down what the behaviour is, and what happens before and after. It might also be useful to include when and where it happened, who was there and what was happening in the background.

Having a routine can reassure your child. When it comes to bedtime, for example, if they know what to expect, they’re less likely to be anxious and will be more ready for sleep. You could try making a visual timetable with them and putting it up so that everyone in the house can see it.

For more advice see the National Autistic Society’s guides on eating difficulties and helping your child sleep

Understanding your child’s behaviour

Some autistic children also have certain behaviours that it’s important to understand and try to manage. 


This is a kind of repetitive behaviour such as hand-flapping, finger-flicking, rocking or spinning. There can be various reasons for this. Some children do it to deal with anxiety or just because it feels good. It can also help them feel less stressed. So it’s best not to intervene unless they’re becoming distressed or hurting themselves, for example banging their head. Watch autistic young people explaining stimming.


Some autistic children have meltdowns: they become overwhelmed and completely lose control. They may shout, scream, cry or lash out. This is not the same as a temper tantrum – it’s their way of showing how overwhelmed they are. It’s important to remember that behaviour like this isn’t your or your child’s fault – it’s directly linked to how they experience the world. Watch autistic young people explaining what meltdowns feel like.

Distressed behaviour

This is when autistic children behave in a way that could hurt themselves or someone else. 

This can include:

  • Hitting, biting or spitting 
  • Shouting or insults 
  • Hurting themselves 
  • Eating things that aren’t food (this is called pica) 
  • Smearing poo on walls or things 

There are always reasons behind behaviours like these. Your child may not be able to communicate how they’re feeling or what they need. And this can make them feel frustrated and anxious and lead to distressed behaviour. They might be overexcited, tired, ill, or struggling with a change to their routine or environment.

The Challenging Behaviour Foundation has more about how to spot these behaviours and what to do when they happen. And the National Autistic Society has a guide to managing distressed behaviour.

Date last updated: 16 August 2023

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