Carolyn Hax: Autistic grandchild's needs need not preclude outings

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)
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By Carolyn Hax
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Dear Carolyn:

The mother of my grandgirls is making life a problem. The middle girl is extremely autistic and has not been taught the social rules we all need. That means it is extremely hard to take her anywhere. She is manageable in the car, taken out to a fast food restaurant and back home. But she is not social enough to take to a store or overnight. The parents think we should be able to take her overnight and anywhere we take the other girls.

Now what? I have taken her to McDonald's every time I take one of the other girls, but that is not enough. This is about the fourth time in six years that she has pulled the "you don't take the other girls until you take Girl 2" deal. I can't see that we are making headway. This really started when I divorced her father and married my childhood sweetheart. I think. Any help would be really appreciated.


Besides the trips to McDonald's and the requests to see two of your granddaughters without the third, what have you done to adapt to having an autistic granddaughter? (I'm going to name her Jane, because "the autistic grandchild" won't do.)

You say Jane "has not been taught" to be social. Does that mean that she has been taught less than she is capable of doing or that her challenges are too great for public outings? Is your daughter able to take Jane anywhere she takes the other girls? If so, is that because your daughter is physically up to the job in a way you aren't, or because she has skills and experience you lack? If it's the latter, have you made any effort to acquire those skills so that you, too, can include Jane?

If it already hasn't screamed its way off the page, here's where I'm going with these questions: There are ways you can show an interest in including Jane, and if you haven't tried them, then you're the one who is making life a problem. You can ask your daughter to teach you her strategies for bringing Jane on successful outings, or, if you've learned those already, then you can admit that Jane overwhelms you and ask for outing ideas that are a notch above McDonald's that can build your confidence with her. Then you can take Jane with you, one-on-one, for as many of these outings as you take the other girls.

And, if Jane really "has not been taught" -- in other words, if Jane's problem lies in the treatment of her autism and not in the autism itself -- then the girl needs a grandmother advocating for her, not avoiding her as best she can.

Maybe your daughter really is angry at you for dumping her father. However, making a special effort to accommodate your granddaughter's special needs strikes me as a compassionate way to make peace. Pointing the finger at her while simultaneously discriminating against one of her children, on the other hand, strikes me as a fine way to guarantee that peace never gets made. Before you ask more of other people, it's always a good idea to make sure you've asked everything you can of yourself.

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