What Autistic Adults have taught me about Parenting my Daughter
As a parent to an 8 year old girl we have our share of frustration, cross words and clashes. We also have a strong bond, a close relationship and enjoy each other’s company. Obviously I love her more than words can say and am beyond proud of her (yeah, yeah – blah, blah, blah!)
I have noticed however that traditional parenting techniques are not always successful with her and whilst being ‘strong willed’ is one of many positive traits she seems to have inherited from me, there is more to it! Another factor that adds a different dynamic to the relationship is that I am Neurotypical and she is autistic. I am conscious that I don’t always respond to her the way she needs.
In an effort to gain some insight into what I could do to improve my parenting of her, I turned to Autistic adults on Facebook and asked ‘what is one thing you wish your parents had known when you were growing up?’ This is what I learnt.
- To Recognise Her
Acknowledging she is Autistic is the first and most powerful message that came across. To accept her for who she really is. “The chances are she already knows she’s different” so giving it a name and recognising it is empowering for her. Acknowledging her for who she is is vital.
Calling it something isn’t enough though – it is about recognising what it means. It is about recognising that;
- She will be naïve, trusting and potentially vulnerable and that she will need love and protection even though she may not ask for it and even if it appears like she doesn’t
- Autistic inertia* is a real thing, she is not being lazy, procrastination stems from a “significant emotional barrier” and to recognise that she will be struggling
- She will need recovery time
- “some kids need help making friends, some just don’t care”, she may not want to socialise and that’s OK, but if she does she will need to be guided
- Her perception of reality will be different to other children’s/mine
- Her sensory needs and desires and her routine needs will be different from mine
- She is externally motivated, visual instruction and physical reward will be more effective than verbal instruction or verbal praise
- With confidence she will work hard and achieve great things
- She is different and not to “pressure her to be normal”
Something else that came up was “don’t be embarrassed to have a child that is different” – whether we mean to or not I think sometimes as parents we change our approach based on what setting we are in and that is often driven by the fear of what others will think. This exercise has taught me to try not to care what others think! (I will add that I have never been and will never be embarrassed by having a child that is different).
2. To Respect that her struggles are legitimate and real. Respect that;
- Transitioning IS hard, and to allow for that by giving enough time to switch activities
- Crying is her way of saying she needs something but doesn’t have the words to explain, no matter her age
- Interpreting things can be hard for her, even praise – she may not be able to tell if I am sincere, so I need to incorporate behaviours as well as words to show her what I mean. Model rather than order if you will.
- She NEEDS alone time – that she needs and wants time in her room and not to force her to socialise
- Respect her sensory issues – her reactions are involuntary. For example if she gags at food or a smell, it is involuntary not just her ‘being dramatic’ or ‘difficult’
One woman explained that she wanted her caretakers to understand that she wasn’t “highly strung” as they called her, in fact she was “baffled by life and society itself”. Truly humbling to hear those words when you are neuro-typical, how much we take for granted.
3. To Teach her everything. Not to make assumptions that she will just ‘pick things up’.
- To realise that she will be doing her best but that she will still want my help and guidance even though she may not ask for it and in the case of my daughter may actively fight against it!
- She will need to be taught life skills
- She will need to be taught HOW to do everything from wiping a table effectively to how to tidy up and organise herself
- To break down every activity to smaller steps to teach her how they connect to each other – a bit like you break down dance moves to learn an entire routine!
- To recognise that she is externally motivated so physical rewards are likely to be more effective than verbal praise alone
- That I need to spell out my expectations and explain everything because she is not a ‘mind reader’
- That if she appears ‘highly strung’ she is probably struggling to understand something
- Avoid using sarcasm, rhetoric or hyperbole
- To encourage and nurture what SHE is good at ‘not what other girls her age are doing’
- Encourage her to take responsibility
- Show her that she is valuable and perfect as she is and she is “not wrong to be different”
4. To be Available to her
- Show her my unflinching love and support
- To be patient and allow her time to fully process information
- Understand that when she is questioning me/things she isn’t being obstinate, she just needs answers
- Show her I’m listening and really hearing her
- To tell her I am sorry when I get it wrong
5. To continue Learning together as we go. I need to learn at each stage;
- That she doesn’t need to be forced into Neurotypical behaviours
- Not to compare her to her peers
- Angry outbursts will be because I haven’t accounted for the steps above
- Anxiety is a bully that overwhelms her and one that she is still learning to control
- Her facial expressions do NOT match her inner emotions
- I must watch, listen and learn who she is and not make assumptions
- Find ways to deal with my frustration – in the words of one woman “I wasn’t trying to destroy my parents happiness”
Some of this, we as a family already know and do, we are fundamentally on the right track and mindful of doing our best. The rest of this we need to remind ourselves and work harder on. Much harder!
Having neurodiversity in a family is fabulous and challenging in equal measure for all of us. We won’t get it right all of the time but having the intention and motivation to at least try our best has to be good enough. Then we can trust in the fact that ultimately her happiness will come from being her true self.
With thanks to the Autistic Women’s Association and other facebook users who answered the question!
*Autistic Inertia is basically a state of wanting or needing to do something, but being completely unable to do it, almost like a paralysis. (https://nolongerinabox.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/autistic-inertia/)