When I was first asked to speak to a special gathering of grandparents, I had a moment of panic. Being a grandparent is so complex: there’s so much to say and so little time. Then I realized that this is the perfect metaphor for our lives as grandparents. There’s so much we’d like to do, and not enough time!
Since our lives are busy and our time is limited, we need to have clear priorities and stay focused on them. So today I’d like to share with you where I have learned to focus, based on my experience as the grandmother of three young children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. I hope that this perspective will also be helpful to you and your family.
Words to Live by: Safe, Calm, Love, Support
Our grandchildren’s lives, our adult children’s lives, and our own lives all contain stress. How can we work together to reduce everyone’s stress? In my family we have a family philosophy. Our goal is that all of us should be safe and calm. We should feel loved and able to give love. We should feel that we each have the supports we need to help us along our way. Children, parents, and grandparents all need to become aware of how to be physically and emotionally safe. We need to know how we can maintain or regain a sense of calm. We need to be able to express love and offer support one to another in practical ways that work for each family member. Let’s look at what this philosophy means in the three dimensions of the family constellation.
Grandparent to Grandchild
As grandparents, we can give our grandchildren the gift of our time and our full attention. I’m talking about uninterrupted time, during which your grandchild can feel calm, safe, and special: times of relaxation when you follow the child’s lead and let the child set the agenda. Spending such quality time together can bring both parties joy, and increase the child’s capacity to grow and learn new things.
All children, and particularly children on the spectrum, need the support of an adult’s guidelines and routines. They need structure and predictability during their visits. Our children can have trouble with understanding time, and with making transitions from one activity to another. When my granddaughter arrives for a visit, we light the Princess candle. At the end of the visit, we put it out until her next visit. Small family rituals like this help our grandchildren befriend time.
Our grandchildren also have trouble understanding boundaries. They don’t mean to offend, but because they lack social awareness, they often invade the boundaries of family members (as well as those of classmates and teachers). We need to teach them, with patience and in clear language, where the boundaries lie: how to respect the personal space, feelings, and roles of other people.
Because of their unique nature, our grandkids require that we keep learning new skills—but where and how? Welcome to Grad School—a.k.a. AANE University! AANE is the place where grandparents can learn from experienced professionals (AANE staff and expert conference speakers), from other grandparents (and other family members) and—a uniquely valuable resource—from adults with Asperger Syndrome—who can often tell you things your grandchildren are not yet able to express. Come to the grandparent support group, or just pick up the phone and talk to someone in Child and Teen Services (or Adult Services if you have an older grandchild).Grandparents who live far from the AANE office should be brave and try taking a webinar—it’s easier than you think!
Grandparent to Parent
If it takes a village to raise a neurotypical child, it takes even more effort and resources and support to raise a child with AS. Our adult children may often need our help—but where is that fine line between helping, and interfering or taking over? We need to be sure our help is wanted, and offered in a non-judgmental way. Because of our grandchildren’s special needs and atypical behaviors, our adult children may often face criticism of their parenting skills—so they don’t want to feel criticized by us! They may want us to listen without judging, and to validate their feelings—which may include frustration, confusion, or pride in a child’s accomplishments other people might consider small.
If parents are willing to accept it, we can offer them precious respite: time for them to recharge their batteries, re-establish their boundaries, and remember that they have a personhood beyond their roles as mother or father. One mother I coached expressed it this way: “I need a break so I can see the loving and lovable child in there again.” You, the grandparent, may be able to provide the childcare that allows a parent to attend a workshop at AANE, where the parent can get support and learn new strategies to help your grandchild.
Raising children with AS is expensive. Parents alone may be unable to afford all the therapies, sensory integration equipment, books about a child’s special interest, or summer camp that a child needs. Therefore, many grandparents help their children and grandchildren financially—often at some sacrifice.
Grandparent to Self
Yet as grandparents we also need to recognize our own limits, and make sure people know and respect our boundaries. Children with AS have intense and varied needs—which can be hard for a parent to meet. Sometimes, exhausted parents may pass along to a grandparent the pressures they feel. While we gladly provide a lot of support, we may not always be able to solve a problem, or to provide all the money or childcare the family may need. Sometimes grandparents may need to say no.
We need to cultivate their own lives, tend our own marriages or friendships, and give ourselves permission to take breaks. Saying “no” to an adult child’s (or a grandchild’s) request today may help you recharge your batteries enough so that you can say “yes” another day.
When you hit a difficult issue, or are having trouble communicating with the other generation, it may be time to bring in some professional help. It could be a financial planner, a family therapist, or a behavioral therapist for the grandchild. Call AANE to talk over the family situation, and to get the names of skilled professionals who understand the impact AS has on all three generations of a family.
Remember that the three generation journey evolves over time. Each generation grows and changes, and our relationships also grow and change. We need to notice and respond to these changes. For example, you will relate differently to a teenaged grandchild than to a toddler! Time and human development bring us more necessity and more opportunities to learn. However, you don’t have to figure it all out by yourself! AANE staff and the AANE community can help you and your family at every stage of the journey. Whatever age grandchild you have, AANE is here to support you and your family with information and education, referrals and community.
This article is based upon a talk Jean Stern gave in November of 2013 to a group of AANE grandparents. Jean Stern, formerly AANE’s Director of Children’s Services, is now a Parent Coach, and Coordinator of Traning and Consultation at AANE Child and Teen Services.