Grandparents can be the easiest or the hardest family members to deal with when a child is diagnosed with autism. Most of the time they are a blessing, because they will assist and provide moral support through the early years of a child's life. Most grandparents have wisdom gained from years of experience that has taught them what is important.
Those Who Are Helpful
There are no official statistics on how grandparents respond to autism, but most parents say they lean heavily on their child's grandparents for support and wouldn't know how to manage without them.
Often it is the grandparents that raise the first alert that something is wrong. A grandparent may question whether the child can hear properly. Grandparents generally love and care deeply for their grandchild, but they are not there day in and day out, so they often spot the lack of development more quickly than do the people in the household who see the child every day.
Your parents can often be your best advocate and stress reducers. Grandma may come through and shine when mom herself is falling apart over the diagnosis. Grandpa may do what dads do best—try to solve all the problems.
If your parents do not live nearby or you just don't relate well to them, perhaps you have developed closeness with your spouse's parents. Either way, the support from grandparents can help you in countless ways.
Grandparents may never have heard of autism and will need to be educated about the various problems. Books can be overwhelming, so a good idea is to make a list of “frequently asked questions” along with answers to give them. This will help the grandparents understand what you are dealing with and save you from answering the same questions repeatedly.
Those Who Are Difficult
It is extremely hard on families when the grandparents of a disabled child create difficulties, so if problems exist it is wise to look for the cause. Generally, one of two issues are at the center.
The most common reason grandparents relate poorly, or not at all, to a grandchild who is disabled is simply that they are baffled. They just don't have the vaguest notion of how they should act,
what they should do, if they should make allowances and, if so, what kind and how much. They want to interact with the child but don't know how to get from here to there. It appears as though they are ignoring their grandchild, but the reality is that they are at a loss, trying to handle a situation for which they are ill prepared.
If you have a parent who appears to be ignoring your child, try to determine if it is because they are unsure of what to do. If that appears to be the case, you can help them become involved with their grandchild by guiding the way. Give them a copy of this book and other books you have found helpful. Gather current magazine articles covering autism. Above all, show them how to act with your child; if they see that autism isn't the worst thing in the world, they will learn how to interact and become more confident in that relationship.
Less commonly, and much more difficult to handle, is the grandparent who chooses not to accept a child with a disability. In addition to this attitude being a loss for the child, it creates resentment from the child's parents and can be a volatile trigger for arguments and disharmony within the family. Other children, who are treated normally, receive a distorted message and sense the dissension in the family; they can become tense and insecure. After all, they may wonder, would they be rejected, too, if something happened to make them “less than perfect”?
Solutions for Difficult Situations
Suggesting the grandparents see a counselor will only make things worse; it's bad enough, in the grandparents’ eyes, that the child isn't perfect, but to suggest they have a problem will only create anger and bitterness. Most parents who have struggled with this situation have said that only some distance makes things bearable. Distance can help everyone cope.
If putting some distance between you and the situation is not possible, limit contact as much as possible. Your other children can still see their grandparents, but explain to the children that the activity or location they are going to visit is not appropriate for your child with autism. Although it is tempting to argue the point with the grandparents, you are not going to reach a solution; it is less stressful, and, in the long run better for all parties concerned to avoid the situation.
When grandparents don't try to understand autism, their attitude can be painful and upsetting. If you know you are never going to be able to change them, there is no need to make your other children feel uncomfortable or awkward. The children will usually sense there is a problem and withdraw from their grandparents.