How Small Wins Can Make a Big Impact for You and Your Child with Autism
For many parents and caregivers of children with autism, some days can feel excruciatingly tough. Between work, managing your child’s schedule of therapies, the occasional meltdown or setback, maybe caring for other children and being a partner, there is a lot that goes into each day (not to mention trying to make time for self-care.) But on even the most difficult days, there’s a tactic that can make things feel a little brighter: celebrating the small wins.
When Erin Laron, a life coach and autistic mother discovered she had food aversions herself, while simultaneously trying to help her autistic daughter widen her palette, she knew it was a cause for celebration.
“[Realizing] that I struggled with food, helped me verbalize appropriately what they may be experiencing,” she said. “Learning texture was a game changer because it allowed them to say the texture was bad versus the taste was bad which can now sometimes be altered.” As a result of her self-awareness and celebrating that win, Laron has since been able to lose weight and her entire family has been more open to additional foods in their diet.
Research suggests, that Laron had the right approach when working through difficult situations or working on big goals. According to a review in the journal Neuron, the recognition of small wins leads to increased levels of dopamine in the brain making it even easier to have clarity and motivation. The heightened confidence associated with the recognition of small wins also makes it more possible for you to triumph in particularly difficult situations of life.
For parents of children with autism, celebrating the small wins is even more so important for progress and peace. Raising an autistic child often means everything you encounter is big. Big meltdowns. Big sensory issues. Big medical bills. And big worries wondering if you’re doing a good enough job. Unsurprisingly, it also means you’re looking for even bigger rewards for dealing with it all, and understandably so.
If you’re not mindful, the weight of all those big things can surely start weighing down the whole family. Plus the continuous focus on shortcomings with little recognition of wins and the inability to extend grace affects your internal dialogue, which can lead to more stress and anxiety.
Here are six reasons why it’s worth it to celebrate wins and extend grace to yourself daily.
Why You Should Celebrate the Small Wins
1. It gives you the chance to play and relax.
There’s not a lot of downtime when parenting. Throw in balancing the hurdles and schedules of a neurodivergent child and you’re likely convinced downtime is a figment of your imagination. Unfortunately, when you miss out on the ability to relax and exercise your imagination playfully, you miss out on the associated health benefits. Play has long been associated with improved relationships, boosted creativity and thought processes as well as stress reduction. All things that are helpful for you and your child. Luckily, recognition of those subtle wins provides the perfect excuse to ditch the mental load for a while and engage in some play as a celebration.
Turning that small win into a celebratory dance party can be exactly what you need to regroup, reframe, relax and see potential opportunities in your current situation; especially when those situations are stressful for everyone involved.
2. It’s encouraging for your child.
When 87 percent of the autistic population suffers from fine motor skills, it’s likely harder for them to have success with many of the tasks neurotypical people can usually do without issue. Some of these skills include things such as writing their name, playing a physical game, or even opening a jar—all things that are common focuses in therapies and social situations. This can lead to frustration if there are seemingly no signs of improvement.
Encouraging your child when they are making an effort or showing progress leads to kids who are more motivated and more likely to do things for their own merit and satisfaction as opposed to the approval of others, according to a report from Utah State University.
3. You’ll feel better about yourself.
One of the hardest parts about parenting children with autism is never knowing how to manage day-to-day life and whether or not you are doing a good job.
“When you’re dealing with the challenges of parenting a child on the spectrum, it can be really overwhelming. Especially if your child requires extra care, attention, and supervision. And you should never dismiss the feelings that come up around that experience,” said Hayley Wilds, therapist, and owner of Center for Creative Counseling.
“But it’s important to do what you can to make sure you don’t sit in those negative feelings forever.” One easy way to do that is to acknowledge all you’ve managed to do and all the things you get to do, she suggests. Instead of saying “I have to,” say, “I get to.”
Switching the language in this way is not meant to dismiss the stress and pain associated with raising a child with autism. It’s merely a tool to help you recenter when times are tough, she said.
4. It stops the need for comparison.
When the basis of autism care and diagnosis is heavily reliant on development milestones in comparison to neurotypical children it makes sense that parents and children routinely compare their abilities. Comparing yourself to others isn’t always a bad thing, but when it results in devaluing yourself or your child’s capabilities, it’s problematic. That’s where celebrating your small wins come in. It gives you the opportunity to highlight what you or your child are capable of, even when it is necessary for you to make those comparisons, such as when it’s required to receive therapeutic services or help in school.
Hold yourself accountable by keeping a list of all that makes you and your child amazing, suggests Angie Berret, RN and intuitive movement instructor. Create a list of the top ten accomplishments and store it on your phone for easy access to call on when discouraged or anxious—the times when it’s harder to recall what makes you or your child incredible, she suggests.
And if you can, limit the aimless doom scroll on social media where unnecessary and harmful comparisons are likely to happen, says Quiara Smith of Aloha Integrative Therapy. Those constant comparisons may make it difficult for you to recognize any wins small or large within your family, forgive yourself for any mistakes you’ve made, or even see your wins as wins.
5. Those small wins are often big wins in disguise.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a child on a mission to function peacefully and be more accepted and accepting of themselves in an ableist society. Maybe your teenager still hasn’t understood the concept of blurting out rude phrases when speaking or your six-year-old is still smearing poop on the wall.
But maybe your teen was apologetic after being rude. And perhaps your daughter actually felt dirty with poop on her hands this time around and gestured for you to help her wash her hands. It may not be what you’re hoping for but it’s a step in the right direction and a sign of things to come. It’s often those small steps that are so often forgotten that turn out to be even bigger than you initially thought.
6. The associated optimism can lead to a longer life.
The celebration of small wins has long been associated with happiness and optimism. What’s even better is that optimism can also lend to longevity. A 2019 study found that those who are optimistic may have a 15 percent longer life span than those who are not optimistic, which is promising when so many parents struggle to wonder who will care for their neurodivergent children once they die. While access and certain life circumstances such as being disabled might make optimism more difficult, the ability to cultivate that optimism is made more possible through practicing gratitude, forgiving yourself, and extending grace, according to an article in the Greater Good.