When I divorced many years ago, I was fine with the idea of being alone with my kids for the rest of my life. I have three children – of which the oldest and youngest both have moderate autism. If you live with autism, you know how “exciting” life can be! I choose to use the word excitement as a way to look on the bright side. I happily call our home a circus – and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I also knew that most people wouldn’t be happy living in a circus. After all, you never know what might happen on any given day.
The kids are young adults now, so many of the habits they had as children (running around without clothes, screaming tantrums, rigid schedules and obsessions, etc.) have gotten a little easier with time and the right medication. However, neither has any sense of modesty, so the bathroom door is as likely to be open as closed, and running from the bathroom to their room without clothes can happen at any time. Only a very special person can handle our special kind of life.
When you feel ready to start dating, it can be scary. You want your children to be safe and happy – you may even worry they won’t understand that someone new may become a part of your family. This can be especially true if your child is extremely rigid around new people and has a hard time with changes in routine. The good news is that it is possible to find someone to love you and your children. The following tips might help you find that person and be able to explain your circus so they will want to join in:
- Define what you want
You need to decide before you start dating whether you are just looking for fun – or for a possible relationship. Some people only want to date if they are searching for a potential life partner, while others just want to go out and remember what being with other adults is like. Both ways of looking at dating are fine, but you need to be honest with yourself. This also means you need to be honest with anyone you go out with. If you aren’t ready for commitment, you need to let that person know at some point. It isn’t fair to them if they want a serious relationship and you don’t. Only wanting fun is perfectly fine! Never let someone tell you how to feel – you need to do what is best for you. Only you know how much you can handle, and maybe adding another person to your home isn’t something you want to do or feel is best for your children.Remember that it’s always fine to change your mind! You may be only looking for something casual and meet someone who opens your eyes to the possibility of having a love that surrounds you and your children in happiness, kindness, understanding, and love. Be open to change – isn’t that what we constantly try to teach our children?
- Keep your private life away from your kids
This may not seem like a good idea if you are always open and honest with your children, but you have a right to privacy, and this is better for everyone involved. Family doesn’t need to know details about the person you are dating until you know this person is really special. Dragging one new person after another through your children’s lives isn’t fair to anyone.Think about it. Your child with autism has a difficult time with changes and new people. Why would you want to introduce someone into their lives until you are sure about the relationship? You are asking for negative behaviors from your child. Can you picture the crying or screaming tantrums when your child wants that person and you have to tell them yet again that person is gone and never coming back? It’s hard enough for neurotypical kids to understand this. Spend time getting to know someone – and making sure that person is fully aware of your situation – before you introduce him/her to your kids.
- Always be open and honest with the person you are dating
Let’s face it – autism is always different. Even if that person knows someone with autism, they don’t know everything. I have two children with autism, and they are each their own person. While they have a few similarities (which I think are more due to genetics than autism), they are opposites in more ways than one. Even on your first date, you can mention your children have autism, but you don’t need to go into any details unless the person seems genuinely interested. You don’t need to share the fact that your child is as likely to paint the bathroom with feces as he/she is to dance naked through your home. You don’t need to share the screaming tantrums or the obsessions that govern many of our lives.If you continue dating, you will have to share more details about your life. It is only fair to the person you are seeing that they know what life is like in your home. They have the right to decide whether they want to be a part of your “circus” or whether that is definitely not something they want. Always be open and honest!
- You need to be careful about who you let into your life
We all have fears of someone hurting our children. It seems the news is full of stories of how mom’s boyfriend or dad’s girlfriend harmed a child. Parents of children with autism need to be even more careful. Unfortunately, people who prey on children may even target those with special needs, as these children are more likely to be unable to tell anyone that they are being hurt.
- Always be cautious about what you tell a new person
I don’t mean to scare anyone, but your child’s safety is the most important thing in your life. Until you are sure that someone is a “decent” person, keep him/her away from your kids. Keep a careful watch when you do introduce them and be aware of any changes that occur in your children (behaviors, refusing to eat, trouble sleeping, etc.) that could indicate a problem.
- Once you find someone special, share your life
If you are lucky enough to find someone who you truly care about, be open to sharing your life with them. You need to slowly let them learn about your children. Invite them to spend time in your home and relax. It’s so hard to relax when you feel someone is judging your children and your home, but you have to remember this person wants to be here. And, the reality is, if the person cannot handle sitting through a meal with your child flapping or beeping or bouncing, this is not the person for you.Of course, you will be nervous, but try to remember this person is willingly coming to your “circus.” They may not know what to expect, but that’s OK! You can learn together! You never know what they might teach you – after all, sometimes fresh eyes can see solutions that tired eyes miss every day.
Remember that you are allowed to have time for yourself and you are allowed to have fun. Being a single parent is hard – when you have a special needs child, it can be extremely difficult! You are a strong person, but even people who are strong need shoulders to lean (or cry) on at times. Don’t let the fact you have a child with autism prevent you from looking for your true love.
Jen Jones is a preschool teacher, a freelance writer, and the very proud mom of three amazing young adults. Autism has been part of their lives for more than 25 years, and she wants to share the joys autism can bring to a family, as well as let people know that, even during dark days, life will get easier.
This article was featured in Issue 49 – Understanding the People We Love