Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Intellectual Disabilities, & Other Developmental Delays: Coping Tips for Parents & Family Plus the Benefits of ACT

autism and family help

If your adult child has a developmental or intellectual disability, you likely already know that supporting him or her changes as they reach the early adulthood years and beyond. Not only do their needs change, but so do the stressors that may arise as your child confronts new experiences, opportunities, and challenges. He or she may have a desire for more independence and social contact—and may be capable of having such freedoms—but will still need your support, supervision, and understanding. Other adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities may not advance significantly when it comes to social, communication, and overall adaptive functioning; therefore, as a parent, your caregiving role continues in a similar capacity as your child ages. Your child will take his or her own, unique trajectory—with you by their side. However, keep in mind that your own need for support remains critical so that you can continue to provide the utmost care for your child. Below we will discuss some of the most important coping strategies to guide and comfort you as you parent your special needs adult child.

Focus on your adult child’s strengths.

This objective remains as important—or even more essential—as your child matures into adulthood. Maintaining a focus on his or her personal strengths will ensure that your child keeps a positive self-image and derives the good feelings that come from doing something meaningful. As a parent and caregiver, one of the most significant things you can do for your adult child is motivate them to nurture whatever strength or skill they are good at. This endeavor—whatever it may be for your child—is where they derive self-esteem. Plus, your child’s area of strength can be a source where you can maintain a bond with him or her. You can connect with your child through this activity they love and enjoy.

Caregivers need self-care…without guilt.

You have likely heard this many times before, but your self-care is central to your ability to be a patient, understanding, and supportive source of care for your adult child. Make sure to challenge any guilt feelings you may have anytime you feel you need a break or some time for yourself. Separation from your caregiving duties is what fortifies you.

Make sure your adult child is engaged in positive activities with social contact.

Your adult child may sometimes resist or refuse structured activities, including daycare or vocational schooling. Remember that just as your own motivation to do things (e.g., work, just about any life goal) can sometimes waiver, so can your child’s. Allow him or her time to break from their routine, as needed, and then reintroduce the idea of going back to see their peers and participate in the activities they enjoy.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

ACT has been found to decrease emotional distress among adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities and can improve your adult child’s adaptive skills. It incorporates principles of behavior analysis by addressing private events (i.e., the situations or behaviors your child may struggle with) to reduce behaviors of concern (e.g., emotional reactions, avoidance). ACT therapists use experiential exercises like metaphors, stories, and specific behavioral activities to guide your child in experiencing these private events that may have previously led to certain target responses/behaviors of concern, but your child is instead encouraged to engage in more appropriate behaviors. For example, let’s say your child avoids going on certain family outings such as the park or the mall. Your child may express thoughts and feelings related to being upset with one of their siblings and therefore not enjoying the car ride or saying they don’t like the park. In ACT, your child is taught acceptance of these thoughts and feelings. They are guided in learning to be in situations they tend to dislike and to voluntarily experience those negative thoughts and feelings while also being able to enjoy the positive thoughts/feelings that come with the trip to the park or the mall. For instance, your child can come to realize that the car ride is fun because they can listen to music on the way to the destination or the park can be a positive experience because they can feed the ducks. ACT sessions help your child play out and practice being in these circumstances, allowing them to not only be able to anticipate outcomes, but to also develop essential coping skills.

Arnold Gillo, MSW, LCSW is a Licensed Therapist, a Behavioral Health Consultant, and the Clinical Program Planner for State of Nevada ICF Program