If you have an autistic child

Advice for single parent families with an autistic child

Families with an autistic child are more likely to be single parent families. In this page we look at tips and advice for parenting an autistic child, with links to other useful sites you will find helpful. We also look at tools for looking after yourself as a parent, and financial support which may be available to your family. 

If you think you or your child may be autistic, you can get advice from the NHS about identifying autism. 

Parenting an autistic child

Autism is a spectrum, meaning every autistic child is unique and has their own specific needs. Some require little or no support while others may need help from you every day. 

Some parents find it helpful to take courses to help them learn more about their child’s autism and their needs.  

  • The National Autistic Society runs the EarlyBird course for parents of autistic children under 5 

Talking to your child about autism 

It’s up to you when you want to tell your child about being on the autism spectrum. Some parents choose to talk to their children about it as soon as they are diagnosed. Others wait until their child is a bit older. There’s no right or wrong time. 

When you tell your child, it may help to: 

  • do it when they’re feeling calm or relaxed 
  • talk to them in a place where they feel comfortable, with no distractions 
  • explain they do not have an illness, but they might need extra support to help them with some things 
  • explain they might find some things harder than other people, as well as finding some things easier 

The Autism Easyread guide from the National Autistic Society might help you explain autism in a way your child will understand. 

Help with communication 

Communicating effectively with an autistic child is a skill that you can develop. General tips for better communicating with your child include: 

  • always use your child’s name so they know you’re speaking to them 
  • use simple language  
  • speak slowly and clearly 
  • pause to allow time for your child to understand what you have said 
  • if needed, use simple gestures or pictures to support what you’re saying 
  • reduce background noise or distractions when communicating

You can get more advice on communicating with your child from the National Autistic Society. 

Common Challenges 

Autistic children often have difficulty with things like eating, sleeping, and anxiety. While these kinds of difficulties can affect all children, they are more likely to be a problem for children on the autism spectrum.

It is helpful to start making a diary of these issues when they happen. This can help you work out what is triggering the issue and take steps to solve it. For instance, you might notice that your child is having a bad reaction whenever a certain kind of food is on the plate, but if you take it away then all the other food is fine.

Start to write down what you kind of behaviour you are seeing, what happens before the behaviour starts and what happens after.  Other information useful to include is:

  • when it happened
  • where it was 
  • who was there
  • what was going on in the background. 

Keep to a routine as much as possible to reassure your child. If they know what to expect they are less likely to be anxious and will be more ready for sleep when it comes to bedtime. You could try making a visual timetable with them and putting it up in the house, so that you can all refer to it. 

For more information see the NAS guide on eating difficulties and advice for parents on helping your child sleep. 

Help with your child’s behaviour 

Some children also display behaviours that are unique to autism. These include: 

  • stimming – a kind of repetitive behaviour (such as flapping their hands or flicking their fingers) 
  • meltdowns – a complete loss of control caused by being totally overwhelmed 

Children often show this kind of behaviour because they are anxious, not being able to make sense of what is happening around them, or because they are struggling to communicate or be understood. These behaviours are not your or your child’s fault, they are just a result of the way they experience the world.  

Ambitious About Autism has videos where young people talk about what their behaviours feel like for them. 

If your child has these behaviours, you can read more advice about how to help with your child’s behaviour from the NHS. The National Autistic Society also has several guides to behaviours associated with autism. 

Behaviours that challenge 

Some autistic children and young people can display behaviour that can harm themselves or someone else. This is often called ‘behaviours that challenge’.  

This can include a wide range of behaviours, including: 

  • Physical: e.g. hitting, biting, spitting 
  • Emotional: e.g. shouting, insults 
  • Hurting themselves 
  • Eating things that are not food (this is called ‘pica’) 
  • Smearing poo on walls or objects 
  • Resisting everyday demand

The Challenging Behaviour Foundation has a lot of information for both parents and professionals to support them with practical advice on how to spot behaviours that challenge and what to do when it occurs. 

The disability charity Scope also has information on challenging behaviour. 

Support for Your Other Children

Having an autistic brother or sister can be difficult for your other children. You can help them by:  

  • making time for them when you can – try to do some activities that are just you and them 
  • make sure they get to have time on their own or with their friends – for example, sleepovers at friends’ houses 
  • talk to them about what’s going on and ask if they have any questions or worries
  • involve them in things like meetings with health professionals so that they can understand what’s going on 

For more advice you can visit Sibs, a charity for siblings of disabled children. 

Support for You

It is extremely hard work being a single parent and having an autistic child brings its own challenges. It is important that you look after yourself as much as possible and try to get as much help as you can. 

Time for yourself

Taking time for yourself when you can is essential. Even if it is something as simple as going for a walk, having a cup of tea with a friend, or having a quiet hour alone. It’s ok to rejuvenate yourself to be a better parent. 

Try to make a set time in your daily or weekly routine that is just for you. This way it becomes normal for your family that you have this time and because it’s a habit, there will be less pressure to ditch it ‘just this once’. 

Welcome support

Try not to guilt yourself into doing too much for your child, as the risk of burnout is very real. Your child will appreciate what you do for them, you do not need to be perfect, just be their parent.

Welcome the support of others. Do not be afraid to ask for help. All parents need to do this, you are no different. Try asking friends and family if they can help with day-to-day things or just be there to talk to. Small acts of support can go a long way. 

As a single parent, you may want to look into what help your local authority can provide. You can read more about this on our ‘If you have a disabled child‘ page under ‘Local Support Schemes‘.

In particular, you may want to look into respite care. This is temporary care for your child to allow you to have a short break. This could be during the day, evening, or overnight. You can read more about respite care on Scope’s website.

Talk to others

You might find it helpful to get advice from other single parents with autistic children, or to hear about their experiences. 

Help With Money 

As a parent of an autistic child, you may be able to claim the following benefits.  

For more information on these, see our page on ‘If you have a disabled child’. 

If you haven’t already, ask your local council for a carer’s assessment as you might be able to get extra support and financial benefits. This is different to the needs assessment for your child. Find details to contact your local council here. 

Budgeting 

It can be helpful to make a budget to help you manage your money. This helps you take control and puts you in a better position to deal with any unexpected changes in your life. You can find online tools to help you with budgeting such as Money Helper and Stepchange 

When making your budget try making a list of needs and wants for your ASD child and for your family, putting them in order from most urgent to least. For example: 

Needs 

  1. 5 extra childcare hours a week 
  2. speech therapy 
  3. join a social skills group 

Wants 

  1. books written for ASD children 
  2. join a sports or arts club 
  3. a special meal once a week  

You can then look into how much these might cost and work out which ones you can afford, starting with the most important need and working your way through to the wants. Don’t try to do everything at once, just work out what you can afford now and come back to your list later. 

Find out more about managing your money on our ‘Making Ends Meet’ page.

World Autism Acceptance Week

World Autism Acceptance Week 2022 is from 28 March to 3 April. You can take part via the National Autistic Society's website.

Find out more

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