Autistic Parenting Pathways

Brenda Dater, Executive Director
Blog Post

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This month we are talking about being autistic and a parent. All parents have to adjust to responding to their child’s needs as they grow and the new feelings and emotions they experience on their parenting journey. If you are an autistic parent, understanding your own mix of strengths and challenges will help you determine the parenting approaches and strategies you need that can help you and your child thrive.

This sounds like me

When parents contact us for information and support when their child receives an autism diagnosis, many are realizing for the first time that they are on the spectrum too. During the course of that first conversation, parents will often say they experienced similar challenges while growing up. One mom shared that when she was a child she liked to walk the perimeter of the playground or read during recess. She didn’t enjoy the loud or unpredictable games like tag or kickball. When her son was diagnosed with autism and she learned more about the traits, she could see how her current deep interest in the Civil War and wanting to talk about it all the time might be similar to other intense and focused interests she enjoyed as a child. With her new understanding of neurological differences, she also realized that her need for recovery time after a particularly social day did not mean she was a social failure. She now recognized how much energy and effort it required for her and what she needed to do to recover.

Increased understanding and acceptance

When an autistic parent has an autistic child, they can often relate to their child’s perspective in ways others can’t. They are uniquely qualified to provide support, empathy, and encouragement for what their child experiences. When parents and children share characteristics and interests, like loving complex board games, experiencing social anxiety at holiday gatherings, preferring to listen without making eye contact, or needing to preview changes to schedules, there is an underlying foundation of understanding and acceptance. One autistic father who came to an AANE group often said that he and his son had a shorthand way of communicating with each other. When his son said that he was too worn out after school to do his homework right away or help with chores, he immediately understood. This father knew exactly how exhausting it was to go through a full day of school (or work) and encouraged his son to take the time he needed to recoup before doing additional tasks.

Anxieties or challenges

But sometimes an autistic parent will have a very different experience from their autistic or non-autistic child. For example, a parent may love hiking and want to share that experience with their child, but their child prefers indoor pursuits and has meltdowns when out in nature. One parent I spoke with said she was having increased anxiety over how to organize and manage playdates for her non-autistic son. He wanted to have multiple friends over each week, but she found it too exhausting. Finding ways to support the child’s needs and interests while recognizing your own limits, helps create environments where you and your child can both flourish.

Finding parenting strategies that work for you

Visit any bookstore and you’ll find a plethora of parenting books with hundreds of suggestions for how to be a better parent. Oftentimes parenting advice does not take the parent’s or child’s neurology into account. Just as children on the spectrum need to have strategies that suit their own neurodiverse profile, autistic parents need to be acknowledged and accommodated so that they can find parenting approaches that work for them and their children. For some parents, creating detailed schedules and setting reminders to manage the myriad appointments and tasks associated with caring for children can be helpful. Building alone time into your day so you and your child can have a break and engage in activities you each enjoy helps to keep things in balance. Finding other parents who understand you can help you feel less alone.

No parent needs to be perfect. Recognizing the strategies and supports that are right for you and your child will help you feel more empowered to follow the parenting path that suits you best.