7 Tips for Bonding With Your Autistic Grandchild

Grandparents may want to connect with their autistic grandchildren, but very often they are uncertain about what to do, what to say, or how to reach out. Luckily, there are ways. Here are some simple tips that may help you, your parents, and your child to build new relationships along with new skills.

Child and grandfather looking at a cell phone together outside
Sally Anscombe / Getty Images

Forming a Bond With an Autistic Grandchild

  1. Offer Some (But Not Too Much) Information. Some grandparents immerse themselves in information about autism. Many, however, may get their information from the media. If your parents are among the second group, do provide them with simple, basic information about what autism is and isn't.
  2. Allay Their Fears. Many older adults are fearful that something they do will "upset" a child with autism, and so they keep their distance. Let your parents know what is and what is not likely to be upsetting to your child. And let them know, too, that even if your child is upset, there are ways to tend to their feelings in a healthy manner.
  3. Give Grandparents a Special Role in Your Child's Life. Your child absolutely loves carousels. Terrific! Save carousel rides for the grandparents—a very special experience that your child and your parents can look forward to. Since you already know your child will have fun, you don't need to worry about grandparents having a tough time getting a smile.
  4. Provide Specific Ideas for Connecting. An older person may be used to children who love to play dress up. But your child walks right through the gorgeous masks and adventurous clothes because they can't wait to get back to their room where they feel safe. The grandparents may feel rejected, and you may feel stressed. Instead, let the grandparent know ahead of time what their grandchild really enjoys. That way, they can come prepared to watch a particular video or play with a particular toy and know that their grandchild will enjoy the experience.
  5. Model Behaviors That Work. How, exactly, do you play with a child who may not take the lead or play in typical or expected ways? The answers vary from child to child. The easiest way to let your parents know how your child plays is to show them. Go ahead and play with your child in front of your parents, so they can see what you do; then, step aside and let them try. If your child won't separate from you, you may need to join in the play and then slowly fade into the background.
  6. Share Your Child's Favorite Toys, Characters, Videos, and Songs. Most children with autism are terrific at learning songs and scripts by heart, and they enjoy reciting, singing, and dancing along with videos. You, of course, also know your child's favorites by heart—and your parents should too. That way, when they arrive, they won't be baffled by Dora the Explorer and her talking map. They may even be able to join in on your child's favorite Sesame Street songs!
  7. Get out of the Way. In many cases, the real roadblock for grandparents is anxiety around looking clueless in front of their own children. What if they say or do the wrong thing? What if their grandchild doesn't respond to them as they hope? Will their own child judge them? If you think performance anxiety is putting a wedge between your parents and your children, the best thing you can do for either of them is to gracefully disappear. In fact, why not take the opportunity to get away for the afternoon?

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.