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What Should I Know About Babysitting a Child With Autism?

What should I expect while babysitting a 4-year-old boy who has autism?
- Emily*

You're already on the right path — you care enough about the little guy to learn about his particular health condition. Here are some tips on babysitting a child with autism.

Before You Babysit

Ask the parents about their son's communication and behavior patterns and preferences. For example:

  • What are the child's routines and rules? Ask the parents to write these down so you remember what to do. Stick to these rules. Some kids with autism can get upset if their routines and rules are changed. Find out what the child likes to do and how often he is allowed to do it. For example, the little boy may have a favorite movie, but only be allowed to watch it once during the babysitting time.
  • How do the parents handle any problems? Ask them what they do to comfort and calm their son when he is upset. Also find out if there are things you should avoid doing. Some kids with autism don't react well to being hugged by non-family members, for example.
  • Does the child have a limited diet? Many kids with autism don't eat some foods. Ask the parents what the child is allowed to eat, and what he can't have. For example, if the child isn't allowed to have food with red dye in it, a lollipop isn't a good treat.
  • Does the child have a special "sensory diet"? Some kids with autism have a list of special exercises and activities to help them stay balanced. So if the child gets too wound up, there are certain activities to help calm them down. Ask the child's parents what these things are.
  • What's the best way to interact with the child? Some children with autism are unable to speak. Ask the parent if the child uses a special way to communicate such as pictures or sign language.

Don't worry about asking too many questions. Autism affects kids in different ways, so no two children with the condition are alike. Most likely, your questions will only reassure the parents that you are a reliable caretaker for their son.

See if you can spend time with the child and parents together before your first babysitting session. This will let you get used to his behavior patterns and see firsthand how the parents handle the child. It will also allow the little guy to get to know you with the comfort of a parent present.

While Babysitting

Try to stick to the child's usual routine and rules (feeding times, nap times, etc.). Give him simple instructions, one at a time, rather than giving him multiple things to do at once. Wait for him to finish a task or activity before giving instructions on another.

Avoid bringing friends or your own family members to the house while you are babysitting. If you take the child on an excursion outside the home, try to visit only places he is familiar with, like a nearby park or anywhere else that's comforting.

As with any babysitting experience, focus on the child. And make sure you have contact numbers for emergencies, including ways to reach the parents if needed.

Reviewed by: Wendy Harron, BS, OTR/L
Date reviewed: September 2014

*Names have been changed to protect user privacy.