“NurtureShock”: Book review from the perspective of a parent of an autistic child

As a general rule I now steer clear of “normal” parenting books. I read a few before the birth of my first son, but they quickly became irrelevant in the face of his challenges. Indeed, not just irrelevant, but also potentially harmful; the autistic child experiences and understands the world in a way remarkably different from a neurotypical child. Those differences impact on almost every aspect of parenting: Discipline; parental expectations; developmental milestones; age-appropriate behaviours; peer relationships; education, etc. If you try to apply completely “normal” parenting practices to autistic children, without adapting them to directly take into account autism, you risk worsening autism symptoms and unnecessarily upsetting your child, without any gain to show for it.

NurtureShock” does fit into the genre of a parenting book about “normal” children (as opposed to special needs, or specifically, autistic children). It is a parenting book with an important difference though. It isn’t following the latest parenting trends; it is analysing and deconstructing them. It isn’t proposing the “new, correct and only” way to parent; it gives you the research and helps you navigate the minefield of half-truths and mixed messages. And though I was drawn to it out of a more general interest in psychology and the science of parenting, it did share some important insights that relate to parenting an autistic child. I’m going to share a few of them.

The book contains ten chapters that investigate common misconceptions seen in modern parenting practices, and in children’s education more generally. I’ll specifically be touching on parts from three chapters. Everything I mention will be merely introductory; I would rather encourage you to read the book for yourself to get a full understanding of the issues and the research.

Chapter 3: “Why white parents don’t talk about race.” This chapter investigates the popular wisdom that merely being around people different from themselves, will encourage and teach children to realise that those differences (the writers focus on race) are arbitrary or unimportant. However, children have a very natural tendency to see difference, and to align themselves with similarity. You can even introduce manufactured similarity (such as wearing the same coloured t-shirts) and overtime children will start to attach meaning to it. The meaning they attach isn’t just “this is the same as me”, it’s “and therefore it is better than what is different from me.”

The important point then is that simply integrating children with difference, is not enough to teach them the irrelevance of those differences (in fact, it can worsen prejudices among children, since children are highly perceptive of difference); you need to specifically and consciously teach the fact that such differences are irrelevant, eg, that the colour of someone’s skin doesn’t matter.

You can see how this might impact on the questions of inclusion for disabilities. It is one thing to advance and encourage inclusion, it is a further question though whether to draw attention to and explain those differences. It would seem that mere inclusion (if we extrapolate from the discussion in the chapter; these are my thoughts, not the writers’), is insufficient. Yes it would be nice to not have to discuss why our children talk and behave differently, in an ideal world it shouldn’t matter (the same way that we’d love race to not be noticed too). But (and my personal experience very strongly supports this view), children will quickly notice that our sons and daughters are different in some important ways, all by themselves. If we don’t want our children bullied or ostracised, we need to find ways to communicate an understanding of those differences. Their presence in and of itself, does not remove the problem in the eyes of other children. Children are not a blank slate in this way; they are pre-programmed to notice and respond to difference.

Chapter 4: “Why kids lie.” Lying is one of the most disliked traits in children, at least that’s what we tell them. But our own behaviour as adults, and the way we act when our children start lying, sends a different message.

The particularly interesting point here from the perspective of a parent of an autistic child, is an understanding of what lying means from a developmental and skills perspective. It’s quite classic to hear parents of autistic children proudly stating their children are better than neurotypical children, because autistic children have a strong (often irresistible) tendency to tell the truth rather than lie. But the ability to lie can grant huge social advantage, and represents the skill of being able to see the world from another’s perspective. It “demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn’t require.”

Contemplating this makes me less inclined to think highly of the fact that many autistic children are so consistently and deeply honest: It is one thing to be honest because you had the ability to lie and chose not to; it is another thing to be honest because you lacked the skills others have to even attempt dishonesty. I don’t think “lack of skill” is something to be proud of in this way. (It would be arguably akin to celebrating that a child who can’t see doesn’t care what your skin colour is.) I am more interested in the teaching of the abilities and skills that (consequently / incidentally) lead to the ability to lie, followed by the further teaching to reinforce and encourage truthfulness. (Though the chapter really does open your eyes to the true frequency and realities of children’s lies.)

My own son is currently going through a phase of greatly enjoying deceit. He has figured out how to lie and trick people (long after his same-age peers figured out the same). He doesn’t do it with malice per se, he does it because he finds amusement in incongruence and others’ reactions. We are in the drawn-out and frustrating process of teaching him when it’s OK to be silly (because there is value to the “lying” he uses during pretend play, the book does explain the value of pretend play), and when he must give correct answers and tell the truth. It is a hard lesson to teach, but I am very glad he is in the position to learn it.

Chapter 10, “Why Hannah talks and Alyssa doesn’t” was a sad reminder of the depth of difference between an autistic child’s verbal abilities, and those of a “normally” developing child. Even though the chapter stresses the wider range of “normal”, in doing so, it even more strongly accented for me that my son was never within the normal range, even at its extremes.

In some ways this is reassuring because you realise the tactics that research has found to be helpful for developing and enhancing a child’s speech, can’t really be used with the “average” autistic child; it’s not that you didn’t do something you should have or did something you shouldn’t have. The joint-attention, the vocalizing, the play and interactions required for normal speech development are typically things you must first actively and laboriously teach an autistic child, whereas they are building blocks ready for use with a normal child. And the resulting emergence of speech and apparent ease with which a normal child can organise their vocabulary, reminds you to adjust your expectations with an autistic child; it doesn’t come naturally for them. Don’t get upset at the child or yourself, and don’t compare them to other children; the only valid comparison – in my opinion – is to themselves. If they are improving, that’s wonderful. If they aren’t, you need to seek out new methods to either help them develop speech or find alternate ways to enrich and assist their communication.

There are other very good chapters and discussions in the book too (and I’ll take this chance just to remind you that the extrapolations to how this applies to autism are my own, though the writers to very briefly mention autism at one point). It’s a well written, well researched, thought-provoking book. I recommend it for anyone particularly interested in child development, modern parenting practices, and education policies and practices more generally.

It’s not your average parenting book, and that’s why it’s worth reading.

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2 Responses to “NurtureShock”: Book review from the perspective of a parent of an autistic child

  1. Sharon says:

    Thanks for this. I’ll definately be buying the book. I remember when Harri was a baby, buying so many books in an attempt to understand his difficult behaviours, and to develop some kind of sleep, daily routine. Of course none of it worked and I developed a seething resentment of the authors and their simplistic suggestions. Well before his dx I knew that none of the popular parenting books could help. I think this compounded my frustration and confusion until Harri finally got his dx. The one size fits all approach to parenting has become a great money maker for the authors but does set many parents up to fail by not acknowledging there may be underlying factors that lead to babies and young children not responding typically to their suggestions. OK I’ll get down off my soapbox now.

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