The Grandparents’ Connection with Autism in the Family

Olson-with son and grandsons at Church
Oscar and Sally Olson with son and grandsons.

Grandparents are a vital part of a supportive extended family.  Grandparents can have as hard a time accepting autism as parents do, or even harder since they have less contact with their grandchild, and their acceptance can take longer.  Grandparents worry about their grandchild and also have to watch their adult child struggle.  They face the double grief of their grandchild’s diagnosis and their own child’s pain.

Grief often renders grandparents powerless to offer the support that their son or daughter longs for.  Grandparents may despair that they could not protect their child from this fate; they may worry that they have passed on a defective gene and that it could appear again in another grandchild.  They may also feel overwhelmed and guilty that they cannot help more.  Undoubtedly most were looking forward to a warm, indulging role with their grandchildren, without the responsibilities of being an authority figure.  Being involved with the new generation can be a source of special pride and satisfaction, but when confronted by autism, the role of the grandparent may not be what they expected.

Grandparents may lose their dreamed-for grandchild who was to be their legacy to future generations just as the parents often lose their dream-child.  Getting to know their actual grandchild can be more difficult because they are often removed from the child’s everyday life and because they may face the dual challenge of supporting their adult child in a time of tremendous need.

Voices from the Spectrum a 2006 book edited by Dr. Cindy Ariel and myself include several essays by grandparents.  In “An Unexpected Gift of Love” Oscar and Sally Olson share that, “…we could not help but wonder why this happened to our family.  As grandparents, our first concern was the heartache and seemingly overwhelming problems this would bring to my son and his wife.”

In “A Grandmother’s Story,” Elizabeth Nedler writes, “Autism is a frightening word…it is here to stay…However, it has not destroyed our family.  I am blessed with two grandchildren who love me and whom I love dearly…It doesn’t make my job harder, just more important!”

It can help to know that you are not alone with your questions and uncertainty.  In reading this blog, you are already on the path to having a loving relationship with your grandson.  Understanding autism can help you in providing the patience and understanding needed as you get to know each other.  Understanding your grandchild will involve more than just an understanding of autism because no two individuals are alike; they may share a diagnosis but personalities vary all along the entire human spectrum.

With the experience and wisdom gained from raising their own children, grandparents may have much to offer in sharing coping strategies and in discerning which issues are linked to the autism spectrum and which ones are the normal challenges of childrearing. Most of all, enjoy your family!

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