As a parent to an 8-year-old girl we’ve had our share of frustrations, 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.
I’ve noticed, however, that traditional parenting techniques are not always successful with her. Being “strong willed” is one of the many positive traits she seems to have inherited from me, but there is more to it. I’m neurotypical and she’s autistic. I’m conscious 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, 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 learned:
1) RECOGNIZE her.
Acknowledging she’s autistic is the first and most powerful message that came across. To accept her for who she really is, “Chances are she already knows she’s different.” Giving it a name and recognizing it can be empowering for her. Acknowledging her for who she is is vital.
Calling it something isn’t enough though – it’s also about recognizing what it means for her:
• She might be naïve, trusting and potentially vulnerable and will need love and protection even though she may not ask for it, or even if it appears like she doesn’t.
• Autistic inertia* is a real thing, she’s not being lazy. Procrastination can stem from a “significant emotional barrier” and I need to be aware of times when she might be struggling.
• She might need recovery time.
• “Some kids need help making friends, some just don’t care.” She may not want to socialize and that’s OK, but if she does, she might need to be guided.
• Her perception of reality might be different.
• Her sensory needs, desires and routine might be different from mine.
• She might be externally motivated; visual instruction and physical reward might be more effective than verbal instruction or verbal praise.
• Confidence can help her work hard and achieve great things.
• She might be different and there should be no “pressure to be normal.”
Something else that came up was, “don’t be embarrassed to have a child who is different.” Whether we mean to or not, I think sometimes as parents we change our approach based on what setting we’re in, and that’s often driven by the fear of what others might think. This 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 who is different).
2) RESPECT her struggles as legitimate and real.
• Transitioning is hard. She might need more time to allow her to switch activities.
• Crying could be her way of saying she needs something but doesn’t have the words to explain, no matter her age.
• Interpreting things could be hard for her, even praise. She may not be able to tell if I’m sincere, so I could incorporate actions as well as words to show her what I mean. “Model rather than order” if you will.
• She might need alone time. She might need and want time in her room, and I should not force her to socialize.
• Respect her sensory issues – her reactions are involuntary. For example, if she gags at food or a smell, it is involuntary. She’s not “being dramatic” or “difficult.”
One woman explained 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 as someone who is neurotypical.
3) TEACH her everything, don’t make assumptions that she will just “pick things up.”
• She might do her best but she might still want my help and guidance even though she may not ask for it, she may even actively fight against it.
• I need to teach her life skills.
• She might need to be taught how to do things from wiping a table effectively to how to tidy up and organize.
• I might have to break down every activity into smaller steps to teach her how they connect to each other – like breaking down dance moves to learn an entire routine.
• If she appears “high-strung” she might be struggling to understand something.
• I should avoid using sarcasm, rhetoric or hyperbole.
• I should encourage and nurture what she is good at.
• I should encourage her to take responsibility.
• I need to show her that she’s valuable and perfect as she is and there is nothing wrong in being different.
4) Be AVAILABLE to her.
• I need to show her my unflinching love and support.
• I must be patient and allow her time to fully process information.
• I need to be forgiving.
• I need to understand that when she questions me or things, she isn’t being obstinate, she might just need answers.
• I need to show her I’m listening and really hearing her.
• I need to tell her “I am sorry” when I get it wrong.
5) LEARN together.
• She doesn’t need to be forced into neurotypical behaviours.
• I shouldn’t compare her to her peers, and neither should she.
• Angry outbursts could be a result of not providing the steps previously mentioned.
• Anxiety is a bully that might overwhelm her and one that she might need to learn to control.
• Her facial expressions might not match her inner emotions.
• I must watch, listen and learn about who she is and not make assumptions.
• Find ways to deal with my frustration. In the words of one person, “I wasn’t trying to destroy my parents’ happiness.”
As a family we already know and do some of these things. We are on the right track and mindful of doing our best. But there are things we need to remind ourselves and work harder on. Much harder.
Having neurodiversity in a family can be fabulous and challenging in equal measure for all of us. We won’t get it right all the time, but I hope having the intention and motivation to at least try our best is good enough. Then we can hope 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 a state of wanting or needing to do something, but being completely unable to do it.
Follow this journey at H2Au.
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