I’ve heard it said that people with autism don’t like relationships or children. I should probably let all the mothers and fathers with autism know they’ve clearly been “autisming” wrong.
When I autism (it’s a verb, to autism: to be a bit odd, flap your hands, not engage socially, and abhor all human contact), I’m definitely doing it wrong.
Firstly, I have children. I have more than the average number of children. And I like them. I like being around them. I like the way they look at the world. But most of all, I like how they look at me: with love and a complete lack of social expectations.
There have been compromises, just as all parenting is compromise. There are times when I don’t wish to be touched when I will still hold my children.
This love is unconditional.
My inflexibility and rule-following play a part. I have strict rules and definite boundaries, but these are explicit and only surround the important things. I like to describe it as organized chaos. Within the boundaries you have a freedom that you wouldn’t have if there were none, or if they were indefinite edges.
The boundaries are based on kindness to others and safety. What more do you need?
In some ways, I am childlike. I have an impulsivity and a fascination with minor detail and patterns. I love enjoying those moments with them.
Where I fall down is the social aspects. Parent evenings are my kind of hell. They’re noisy and crowded and often don’t end up following the rules that they created, all to hear that my children are who I think they are…
I am as imperfect a parent as any. I am instinctive. I am fiercely protective. I share their pain and their joys.
As a wife, I am honest, loyal, and supportive. I am whimsical (although my husband would be more likely to class that as impish), I am enormously affectionate when unstressed, and my home life is my joy.
I am practical. I am logical. I am artistic and creative. I am scientific and mathematical. I am a complex person. I am a person.
As I write this, there is a small person asleep on my lap. There is no divide between her and me. She is held so close that I cannot tell where I end and she begins. She is comfort and warmth. I am in awe of all of my children, these incredible, tiny people with their incredible minds and their incredible feats of everyday genius. And I get to be with them. I get to just listen and laugh and be a part of their family. I am so honored.
I can’t comment on what parenting without autism must be like. My husband is neurotypical (not autistic), and he’s certainly better at dealing with change than I am. Who is the better parent isn’t really a discussion we have. We just both muddle along, doing our best and working to our strengths.
Parents with autism are researchers by nature.
We will have read everything we can read, and we will have studied every presentation of parenthood we have come across. We will have chosen how to parent based on knowledge, and we will learn and fine-tune our technique based on experience.
It’s also important to remember that just because other people don’t research everything, it doesn’t mean that they’re not interested. It doesn’t mean they don’t care just as much as we do.
I have never fought against instinctive parenting. In the rest of my life, I’ve shackled my impulses, I’ve suppressed fear and stimming and all those instinctive actions that are not “normal.”
But, with my children, I am free to be instinctive. To hold them close. Even to look into their eyes. With everyone else, I will look at noses. But my children are extensions of me. No expectations. No preconceptions. No judgment. No othering. Just love.
Then they grow and they learn. They shine a light on the things I find difficult. Not by forcing me into uncomfortable scenarios, but by asking why we have the ones we have.
Ever tried to explain the ludicrous aspects of communication to a small child? Ever had to deal with the question, “Why is it sometimes OK to lie?”
Ever defined the subtle nuances of fact versus opinion? Ever navigated the stormy waters of ranking the importance of feelings over honesty?
It’s not just truth either—why is it OK to say things in certain situations and not others?
When you start to pull at the thread of societal interactions, they all start to unravel. We do things because that is the way we do them.
The basic premise of all interaction should be to be kind. Is it true? Yes. Is it kind? No. Then don’t say it.
Many people with autism not only have empathy, they have a higher-than-average level of empathy. Yet there’s still a belief that we are unfeeling.
Just because I cannot always show you my feelings through body language and expression doesn’t mean I do not feel. It doesn’t mean they are not there. It just means I’ve not presented them in a way you can understand.
Tips for Parenting with Autism:
- Be realistic. Decide on what is actually important and have those things as your limits. Don’t stress the little stuff.
- Laugh a lot. As often as possible. Never at your child, but with them. The more you do it the easier it gets.
- Parent the child in front of you. The one lesson I’ve really learned is that children are actually real-live people, and a lot of who they are is intrinsic. That is to say, environment didn’t cause it. Don’t assume a girl will be sensitive and a boy will be tough. Don’t push a child into accepting something they can’t handle, just because their older sibling found it easy.My older son can’t cope with any kind of peril in TV and films. My younger daughter is a bloodthirsty monster who takes it all in stride. Let them be scared of what they’re scared. Let them be safe. Let them express themselves. Listen. They won’t be who you expect them to be: they’ll be themselves, and that’s far better.
- Politeness is the sneakiest of all social skills. It’s lovely. It makes us all feel appreciated, and if your child is polite, then they will have an easier time of it. Repetition is the way to go. Not in that annoying, pointed, “Say THANK you,” but in a cheery echo every time you hand them something, or they give you something. And don’t ever forget to thank them back. Why should they do it if you don’t?
- Children are the ultimate acceptors. You’re teaching them how to treat people. Above all, teach them to be kind. Teach them that everyone is equal. Teach them that we’re all different, and we’re all the same. Now is the time! My children have always seen me stim. They’re curious. I explain and they accept it.
- Don’t take it personally. This is probably the hardest one. When someone you love lashes out at you, it’s easy to assume that his/her purpose was to hurt you. Look for another cause. Unhappiness and aggression is often a communication issue. Help the other person find another way. You don’t have to tolerate the action, but you do need to find the trigger if you want it to change.
- When you make your plan for the day, as I do every morning, write in time for “unforeseen circumstances.” It helps with the stress when your child suddenly tells you that they need something. It’s already written into your plan. It’s a part of your day. You don’t have to change anything.
- Not just to your children, but to the other adults in their lives, be they your husband, wife, grandparent, friend, or whoever. Talk and be honest about the things you find difficult.One thing people with autism do is to assume, without basis, that other people share our point of view. Don’t assume that just because you hate a certain task, everyone else hates it too.
- Take time out. It can be half an hour in a darkened room. It can be watching awful television. It can be doing wheelies on a motorbike on an empty beach. Whatever it is that you need to let your brain filter out the noise, do it. It will help them. It will help you.
They don’t want you to be an all-singing, all-dancing parody of a parent.
They want to feel safe and loved.
They just want you.
Rhi Lloyd-Williams was diagnosed with autism in her 30s. Discovering that she was not just a bit rubbish at being a person, but instead is a fully-formed autistic woman with some incredible learned social skills, has made a huge, positive difference to her. She lives in the middle of nowhere in Wales with her husband and children. When she has the time, she tries to pin down the world in words.
Rhi’s blog is https://autnot.wordpress.com
This article was featured in Issue 54 – Surviving Family Challenges