Parenting the Autism Away…

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.

From Andy Magee, via Flickr

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.

This entry was posted in Alternative Theories, Attitudes to Autism, Causes and Cures of Autism, Parenting an Autistic Child and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Parenting the Autism Away…

  1. Matty Angel says:

    Hello! 🙂 🙂 Can you explain what is wrong with

    “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”

    I want to understand to not upset 🙂 🙂 I would say that to someone because you helped create child to be in the world. But you seem to understand it another way. 🙂 I would not say it for Autism.

    Thank you!!! 🙂

    • Matty Angel says:

      : ( I forget to space my smiley faces, those are the wrong kind of smiley faces. The smile is to big I just wanted it to be a normal smile face : )

      I am sorry if that changes the meaning of my words. I was just trying to write a question that is happily asking : )

    • Hi Matty, the emphasis there is on the word “personally,” I’m trying to say that people think it’s because of what I have solely done that my son is now doing so well, in the post I point out that it’s not quite this simple in terms of explaining his progress. The comment received from others that I am talking about here is in the context of my post – when discussing how far my son has come and why – not in the general sense you have taken it to mean as a comment on his mere existence. If you ignore the context of the comment and of the post, then you would be quite right to take it in that more general sense, but sadly I am only ever told I should be proud when in discussions about his improvements. It’s a sad indictment on how other people see and value our challenged kids.

      I don’t mind you asking for clarification, thank you for allowing me to further explain the point.

      • Matty Angel says:

        Your post is a bit to hard for me to understand : ) in my head it seems okay to say. You should be personally proud of how far he has come. Because you created him and if you did not, then you could not be proud.

        Hmmm I guess I hope I don’t offend people, I can’t see the other meanings.

        I will ask a support worker to see if they can help me understand sometime later : )

        Thank you for taking time to reply!!!! : )

        • I’ll try again Matty.

          Taking pride for something implies you had something essential to do with it, that you can take responsibility for its result. You can’t take pride in something that had nothing to do with you. In any general context I am proud of my son and what he achieves, but the context here is some one saying I should be proud of how far he has come because I am the reason he has come that far. In the post I explain why it’s not nearly that simple to claim I am the cause of his advancement, I point out that there are other people and influences that could just as easily be the cause of his advancement. At no point do I say I had nothing to do with it, I am taking issue with the claim that my parenting itself is *the* key, in particular I take issue with people extrapolating from that to saying other parents just aren’t trying hard enough, or that autism is caused and can be cured by good parenting. Note as well that I do comment at the end of the post that I appreciate when people praise me, and then I reiterate why I get concerned about where that praise goes awry.

          Your confusion about my statement is because you’ve dropped the context of the post and of the statement when it is being made: this is about people thinking parenting is the key reason my son’s autism has become less severe. If you drop that context and ignore the rest of the post, then yes the way you’re reading the statement makes more sense. But that’s not what I’m talking about here, and the post is not about that standalone statement, the statement you’re focusing on is just a single statement in a wider concern about how people think parenting and autism are linked.

          I don’t know if that explanation helps, I’m not sure what else I could say to clarify the point.

  2. Kathy R. says:

    Thank you for explaining that pang in my stomach when well-meaning folks credit my son’s improvement to his parenting. Nothing is simple, is it??

  3. kellykrei says:

    Reblogged this on kellykrei and commented:
    This is a great point of view from a great parent so I thought I’d share with you, happy reading. Spread the word !! Share and repost !!

  4. Shanti says:

    It’s really great to see you feel this way. There are some autism parents that seem to think they have all of the answers because their children have done so well. I used to hang on their every word, but now I know better. There are many things we can do to help our children, but sometimes it’s just a fluke and none of us has all the answers

  5. swangmann says:

    We all try to do our best…I’ve been so lucky with my boy. He has had such amazing teachers and family who I’m sure have had a major role in his experience but I agree with A&O, we were just so lucky to get the hand we were dealt… a child who “gets” the therapy and teaching methods, who can be calmed. But what about the other kids, who are not coping? Their parents love them and help them, they have fabulous teachers and therapists and yet their behaviours belie a world of utter turmoil and fear. There are just so many different types of autism. The sooner we can identify what these different types are, and how best to handle them, the better.

  6. Hi–
    Psychology Today magazine is hosting a free webcast tomorrow (11/12/13 at 12 pm EST), called “Love and Autism,” that you might find especially interesting. An expert panel will discuss the unique challenges faced by the families of children with autism, which goes along perfectly with what you blog about:
    (Enter the promo code “PSYCHTODAY” for free access and please feel free to forward the link to others!)

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