Before I had my first child I put a lot of thought and time into figuring out good parenting skills. I watched all the right programmes and documentaries, read the right books, and spoke to the right people. I went into parenting with sound and consistent principles, an eagerness to do it all right, and an acknowledgement that you can’t pre-empt all the problems; there was always going to be some learning on the job.
None of that knowledge or those skills, worked with my eldest son. Words and physical affection made him angry, change of any sort could scare him to the point of self-harm, playing with him was as good as impossible – all he’d do is line up cars and scream if anyone touched them. Parenting an autistic child is not like parenting a neurotypical one: More parenting classes, more books, more programme-watching, isn’t going to give you the skills you need. In the same way that bad parenting doesn’t make your child autistic, neither does “good parenting” fix the autism.
I am not saying that caring for an autistic person isn’t made easier with generally good parenting skills, such as using consistency, discipline, and communication. Or made worse by bad parenting skills, such as punishment for acts beyond the child’s control, ignoring or being violent to the child. Rather, I’m pointing out that more is required than an adjustment in usual parenting skills.
Parenting classes run by people who understand the autistic mind, do help. As do therapies that adjust and refine your parenting to take into account the sensory issues and communication problems of an autistic child. It is different, rather than better parenting, which is required. This different parenting style, in turn, doesn’t quite work for neurotypical children.
I found after I’d learnt how to deal with my autistic son, that my new parenting style no longer matched his neurotypical peers. The way I spoke to and interacted with children who didn’t have autism, now confused and bored them: My slow and careful actions and eye-contact, my repetitive speech supplemented with basic sign-language, the way I transitioned them between activities – all un-necessary and unwanted. I had become a mum of an autistic child, and I couldn’t just switch it off. I could consciously change the way I spoke to and dealt with other people’s children with some effort. And when I returned to having to deal with my own son again I was always immensely aware of the change in my parenting style.
Even with a neurotypical son, I am consciously aware of the different parenting techniques I employ for my boys. My youngest is carefree and enthusiastic, parenting him is highly enjoyable and natural. He loves new experiences and interactions of almost any sort, he loves language and music. He gets into mischief and tests his boundaries. I get to employ all those wonderful skills I learnt back before I had my autistic son, and guess what, they work! But whenever I move between parenting my two children I have to make those adjustments to suit the different ways they perceive and experience their worlds.
These are not the subtle differences you might make to parenting merely different individuals. The difference is more fundamental. I can interact with all neurotypical children essentially the same way, adjusting and applying foundation principles to new situations as they arise. Similarly, I can use the parenting principles for my autistic son and apply those to other autistic children I meet – for example, I don’t rely on them reading my facial expressions or body language like I would for a neurotypical child. I constantly watch for signs of anxiety, try to identify the stimulus that might be causing it and minimise the impact.
Whenever I run an ad looking for a carer for my autistic son, I always ask for someone with training or experience with autistic children. And I always get some people who have neither, saying surely there’s no difference between looking after “normal” children and looking after autistic children – they’re all just children after all. It’s true that a large number of skills cross-over, such as patience and empathy. Those are good foundations for looking after anyone, hell they’re good foundations for looking after pets and for making friends too. But it is not adequate for looking after an autistic child. Even when I get in carers with experience and knowledge of autism, I still have to spend a fair while teaching them about my son’s specific challenges and how autism manifests in him. Taking on someone with no knowledge or experience of autism, would mean a huge job for me teaching them what they need to know, and the significant risk that the carer will walk out that door once they realise what it’s truly like to look after these children (Big Daddy Autism did a great cartoon that helps illustrate that point).
These different skills in parenting – and generally caring for – these children, vary with the severity of autism to an extent. My son’s autism was quite severe early on (prior to interventionist therapies), so I got to really experience and appreciate those differences. As his autism has improved, the parenting challenges have lessened. But I cannot parent my two children in the same way, and I would be doing them a disservice if I tried. I apply the same rules to them both (such as re violence, and ownership and sharing of toys), but my interactions, communication, game-playing, and expectations of them, for instance, are not the same, and go beyond mere differences in their ages and personalities.
Maybe as I mature as a parent (I have after all only been doing this for five years), my attitudes or understandings of these issues, will change. But this at least is my current understanding of all I have seen and been through over those five years. I would be interested to hear how your own attitudes and experiences have differed.