How can I teach my autistic child to take medicine?

At the age of six, Donovan developed a bad respiratory infection; his pediatrician recommended he take an antibiotic for ten straight days. This mortified his mother, Amber, who knew that with Donovan’s autism, she was in for a fight.

“He’d never had to take pills or liquid medication before, that I could recall,” shares Amber. “We’d make a game of taking gummy vitamins, but that was pretty much it… and it’s not like it would be the end of the world if we missed a night or two on vitamins, right?

“But with such strict dosages and knowing that missing a dose might cause issues, it really stressed me out knowing I’d have to fight with him three times a day for ten days to get him to take this.”

Amber, like most parents, knew her son well – her worries came from experience. Donovan is (still) a particularly picky eater, just as many other kids with autism spectrum disorder are. Many autistic kids have sensitivities to textures or tastes, which results in them disliking food. For the same reason, autistic kids have a tough time swallowing medicines or vitamins, either in liquid or pill form. This is concerning for so many parents because in the event of illness – like Donovan’s respiratory issue – it can be a challenge treating these kids efficiently or effectively. Even without the presence of an ailment, sometimes it’s recommended vitamins or medicines are taken, for the purposes of addressing or supplementing nutritional deficiencies.

At the suggestion of her autism support group, Amber took to a specialist who had a lot of history and success with a variety of tactics designed for autistic kids who have a hard time with medicine.

The first suggestion the specialist made was to mix his medicine with a favorite food. This highly common (and very successful) method makes the medicine more palatable, and parents have found that crushing a pill and mixing it with a desirable food like chocolate pudding or yogurt disguises the taste almost completely. If this is something you think you’d like to try, check with your pharmacist first and make sure that the medicine your child has been prescribed can be crushed or mixed at all.

If the answer is no, the next option is to ask your doctor for an alternative, something that can be mixed or crushed, or perhaps one that can be delivered in a different flavor. You may also find a compounding pharmacist, someone who specializes in mixing drugs for special needs, sometimes by providing the medicine in a different form, like a chewable or a gummy.

These tactics work quite well, but only for occasional use; if your child is one who may need to take medicine or supplements over the long term, you might want to employ strategies that teach them how to take medicines the way they are intended, either in liquid or pill form.

More parents of autistic children struggle with teaching their child how to take pills, and some of them, like Amber, are more likely to give up even before they’ve tried, because they’ve heard the horror stories.

What many parents don’t realize, however, is that lots of kids – autistic and otherwise – can certainly learn the skill of pill taking. It just takes time, patience, guidance and compassion. It may require the assistance of a whole team to start, including occupational therapists, behavioral specialists, and speech pathologists, but it can be done.

Parents can also partake in at-home pill swallowing lessons or activities. Some of them include using visual supports, which might mean showing your child a video or a picture of another child who is taking a pill; creating a daily schedule that lists taking the medicine (this creates a predictable routine, and your child learns to expect the activity); and pairing the task of taking the medicine with an enjoyable, happy activity right after it.

Eventually, taking medicines or supplements will get easier for your autistic child. Just give it time. The earlier you begin teaching and supporting your child with these new skills, employing helpful strategies to improve their behavior, the sooner you can rest easy that your child’s long-term health is safe.

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