I’m going to start with a deceptively simple statement: Good parenting can lessen the severity of autism. If I just stop now, I’ll have left you with the groundwork for a huge number of the misconceptions I see almost everyday when I deal with other people’s attitudes towards what causes and cures autism, so I better explain myself.
I said good parenting “can,” not will, lessen the severity of autism. Any intervention to help a child cope with the challenges autism brings to their life, must always necessarily involve advising and training the parent: If the parent is not understanding and committed to the intervention, it will not be applied consistently or appropriately in that child’s life. Furthermore, teaching a parent to better understand autism and how autism impacts on their child, will help them be the parent that specific child needs, and often make them a more patient, aware, responsive and hopeful parent.
For example, understanding how to deal with a child’s anxiety, sensory issues, or how to advance their social skills – and being aware in the first place that the child is struggling with these specific challenges – inevitably helps you be a more effective (and empathetic) parent.
The problem is that autism’s severity and prognosis varies hugely; a good parent or a bad parent is not a predictive determinant for that child’s eventual outcomes in life. It can help, and in itself good knowledgeable parenting is always best, but you cannot look at an autistic child’s severity and use that as evidence of the parenting the child has received.
But this is what we do with other (non-autistic) children all the time in society. We meet a rude, violent (etc) child, and we can legitimately look to the parent as a major source to explain and address the behaviour, and parenting interventions usually do provide great improvements for your average troubled child. So the rude, violent (etc) autistic child is similarly often blamed on poor parenting. This view is made a whole lot worse by families like mine:
Our son’s autism severity has dropped away noticeably. Extended family members and friends know that we worked very hard on adapting our parenting to help our son, so they reach the conclusion that the good parenting was key and the other more severely autistic children also just need better parents. It’s an almost irrefutable claim, because the child’s behaviour itself is taken as evidence that not enough is being done, and parenting is done mostly behind closed doors so there can always be speculation about what the parents must be doing wrong when they can’t be seen. (In turn, people will sometimes reach the conclusion that poor parenting must have caused the autism in the first place, since good parenting can fix it.)
This is part of why I cringe now when people tell me that I should personally be proud of how well my son is doing, or that I should write books to tell every other autism parent what they should be doing too. (I’ve even had people proudly inform me that they publicly told off other parents of a misbehaving autistic child by arguing that they knew someone else (me) who had learnt to control their autistic child by parenting them “properly.”) As always, the facts are far more complicated than that. We don’t know which therapists, which therapies, which teachers, which parenting decisions, which genetic determinants, which individual factors (such as intelligence), which environmental inputs, all played what part towards his current outcome.
Along the same lines, neither do we know if he’d had been even better off than he is now if we’d just done something differently along the way. Maybe we’ve actually screwed it up; that thought used to haunt me in the early years before I learnt to just focus on doing the very best I can right now without torturing myself over the endless “what-ifs” of parenting past.
I will say though that we have a pretty good idea of what worked well and why, and I have always tried to track new interventions alongside severity scores to give me a sense of how things are progressing. But I am fully aware that my son does not live in a controlled environment where all other factors remain static.
Scientific studies attempt to isolate what works for whom and why and how, but autism is such a broad and diverse grouping still that it can make it hard to successfully generalise from those studies too. I feel that those sorts of studies these days are pointing in directions of future needed research at this point, rather than answers; until we better understand the types, causes and related prognoses of autism, it’s hard to see how helpful that information will be. I also believe it’s vital to take into account the entirety of the child – their personality co-morbities, etc – in order to figure out what will help them.
Parents are just doing their best with the information they are provided by the current experts in the field. Do parents get mislead, confused, and make poor choices? Yes, but that is true of all parents in all societies; autism parents are not somehow infallible super-beings. We’re just people, with all our own neuroses and challenges that we’re also trying to deal with, but there is no doubt in my experience that we are held to a much higher standard than average parents. We are under constant scrutiny by the media, medical professionals, adult autism advocates, and society in general; that’s a lot of pressure when you’re going through a learning process about bringing up children and about autism. We do not leap perfectly formed into our roles as autism parents, we evolve into them over time and through experience.
Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate when people praise me for my parenting, but I do not appreciate when they follow it up with attacks on parents of more challenged children. I also feel that focusing so much on the impact of parenting, detracts from the huge effort of all those other professionals in the child’s life and of course the child themself.
Which all brings me back to where I started: Good parenting can lessen the severity of autism. It is important, it is valuable, but the best parenting course in the world could never promise to parent the autism away.