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We are receiving new guests over the holidays. My brother has a new girlfriend who has two children. Her youngest, an 8-year-old boy, has "mild autism." I am not absolutely sure what that covers, and unfortunately I haven't had much time to really discuss it directly with her. I would like to be sensitive to his needs when he comes to visit, but I am having difficulty finding resources that directly address how to help a child with autism adjust to a new environment.

Specifically, I was thinking that providing a calm, quiet area or room (and letting him know that he can retreat there whenever he wants to) would help him feel more comfortable, but I am concerned that he might feel isolated by this gesture.

Has anyone had experience with this kind of visit before? Would creating this kind of space be helpful, or only make things more complicated?

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autism is a gigantic spectrum. I would ask this question of your brother and his girlfriend. –  DA01 Dec 18 '12 at 21:41
    
I would, if that were practical, but my brother won't know (they don't live or parent together currently) and I don't know his new girlfriend well enough to contact her directly, plus I wouldn't feel particularly comfortable asking her about her child's "special needs." I think it would come across as unwelcoming. –  KitFox Dec 18 '12 at 22:09
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I'd find it very welcoming. "Hi, welcome to our family! Is there anything we can to accommodate your kids and make them feel welcome?" No need to even bring up the autism directly. –  DA01 Dec 18 '12 at 23:21
    
@DA01 - you just barely beat me to it - I was adding an answer that phrases it almost just like that –  Chris Dec 18 '12 at 23:28
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3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

My daughter has cerebral palsy, not autism, but the general principles are the same in this circumstance. We don't expect anyone to know what our daughter needs. Her needs are complex and unique. If we hosted another family with a child with CP in our house, we would ask the parents what they needed. Children who happen to share the same disorder have a lot of similarities, yes, but they are as different from each other as all other children are different from each other.

The most annoying thing when we stay at someone else's house is when they make assumptions without asking us. For example, our daughter can't walk, but can crawl, so people have made the assumption before that it's safer for her to crawl inside their house rather than risk her bumping into their stuff with her wheelchair. Wrong. It's painful, slow, dirty, and undignified for someone her age, even though it was perfectly fine when she was smaller.

So by all means provide them a safe and private area to use as they need, but don't make assumptions like "this is where he will go to calm down." If in doubt, just ask.

I think you are likely to be pleasantly surprised, though. In general, children with special needs are a lot more scary in theory than practice.

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"Children with special needs are a lot more scary in theory than practice." Thank you. That's good to know, because honestly the anticipation of this whole visit is scaring the bejeezus out of me. I want to be welcoming, but not offensive, and I have no idea how to do that. Worse yet, I have two small kids and no idea what their reaction will be, so no idea how to handle that sensitively. And just about four days of prep time when I'm already in the middle of Christmas preparations. Eeek! –  KitFox Dec 19 '12 at 17:16
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Parents who have kids with any kind of special need know how to handle their child's need, and are aware that people who DON'T deal with it on a daily basis aren't going to know what to expect or what to do. No one should think you're offensive or unaccommodating as long as you are gracious and helpful. And your kids will probably be fine. Kids tend to embrace other children with differences much more readily than adults do. It's one of the amazing things about kids! :-D –  Meg Coates Dec 20 '12 at 0:48
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I have zero experience with autism but I do know that every child is different.

Just ask the your brother - he can talk with the mother who has dealt with this for 8 years and knows exactly what works and what does not.

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As DA01 mentions in his comments, autism is a gigantic spectrum. Strategies for how to deal with it vary widely - the person who could best answer this question would likely be the child's mother. It may be an uncomfortable question, but it's likely one that the child's mother is familiar with answering by now.

If you're worried about coming across as unwelcoming, try phrasing it something like "Is there anything I can do to help you and your child more be comfortable while you're here?", and not refer to it as "special needs" or a disability.

An alternative is to broach the subject through your brother, as he may be able to answer a few questions, or at least will be able to ask his girlfriend. If you're going to be hosting them for the holidays, the subject is going to come up at some point, and it's something you'd rather be prepared for than discover at the last minute.

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