For so many years, the public believed that autistic people couldn’t be parents. The disability seemed too significant. The idea that an autistic person could handle raising a child was too hard for people to grasp. But, the truth is that there are thousands of autistic parents. Some are diagnosed and some aren’t, but they are working hard just like all the other parents to raise happy, healthy kids.
Being an autistic parent is hard. It comes with challenges that neurotypical parents don’t have to deal with. An autistic person’s needs and the societal stigma surrounding autism can create extra struggles that further complicate the parenting process.
This article talks about some of the challenges of parenting when autistic as well as some of the magic autism brings to the parent-child relationship. Because everyone has unique, individualized experiences, we are discussing trends and common themes. These experiences won’t apply to every autistic parent. However, hopefully this will educate and encourage neurotypical and autistic parents alike.
Sensory Needs and Autistic Parenting
A little girl practices her drumming skills on the pots and pans on the floor. A little boy learns he can’t go outside to play and starts screaming. A child is excited to see mom or dad come home and shrieks in joy while running to leap into their arms. These are all common childhood behaviors.
Unfortunately, for an autistic parent, they can present a major challenge. Sensory input, such as noise and touch, are overwhelming for many autistic people. And anyone who has kids knows that life becomes a parade of noises, touching, laughter, and banging. No matter how much someone loves their children, this level of stimulation can cause an autistic parent to melt down or shut down. If the brain gets overloaded with sensory input, it has to do something to protect itself. The typical response of melting down or shutting down aren’t ideal when taking care of a tiny human. So, people have to find ways to meet their sensory needs while still engaging with their kids.
Tips for Handling Sensory Issues
Autistic parents find different ways to deal with this. Some take the over-stimulation as inevitable and work on managing their own responses to it. They may wear noise-canceling headphones or special decibel-dampening earplugs that still allow them to hear everything. Parents may have the kids play outside whenever the conditions are right. Autistic parents may get up early in the morning so they have quiet time and are “fully charged” to take on the day. They may set themselves breaks during the day that fit into the family schedule so, when the kids overwhelm them, they have the ability to work through it.
One autistic parent we spoke to uses sensory over-stimulation to teach their child about consent. They’ve built a relationship where they can tell their child, with kindness, that now isn’t an okay time to touch or grab. And this respect goes both ways. Their child knows that if they don’t want to be touched or interacted with, they have the right to say no. Both the parent and child get their needs met, and the child develops a sense of themselves as an independent person with bodily autonomy.
Shame and Autistic Parenting
Autistic parents often do things differently from their neurotypical counterparts. They might have to keep a strict schedule or not have a lot of kids over for playtime. Autistic parents might need to take quiet time away from the kids for a while in the afternoons. Their kids might have fewer extracurricular activities throughout the week. Some autistic parents might struggle with showing the intense, exuberant emotions many parents display around their children.
None of this means they are bad parents. Autistic parents love their kids, just as any parent does. They’ve worked out a system that works for their family and gets everyone’s needs filled.
But we have so many expectations around parenting. It’s a space where there are a lot of unspoken rules, and the punishment for breaking them is exclusion and judgment. Even though we know one-size-fits-all parenting doesn’t work for anyone, when an autistic parent sets up a system that works for their kids but seems unconventional, they can get a lot of negative attention from other parents around them.
Even if no one says something, autistic parents likely have internalized the many “shoulds” of parenting that society dictates. It’s challenging to feel like a good parent when you feel like you’re breaking all the rules. Shame comes from both internal and external sources, and it can be a lot to deal with.
Tips for Handling Shame
It’s hard to find a work-around for shame. Self-compassion is often a helpful counter to shame. Provide yourself kindness and grace when you struggle, instead of harsh judgments. It’s the same idea as how you comfort your child when they’re having a hard time. Also, knowing that you are not alone in your struggles can help diffuse feelings of shame. Lastly, practicing mindfulness can help you not get swept away by your negative feelings and instead stay even-keeled and in the moment.
One autistic parent we spoke to suggested practicing radical self acceptance as often as you can, preferably with the support of a therapist. Identify what makes you a great parent, and lean into it. Trust that you know your child. Work on realizing that most of the rules don’t actually work. This parent says that even though they struggle with shame about the adaptations they have to make, they also know that they are incredibly in tune with their child. They attribute this understanding to their autism, as it makes them very aware of the physical and emotional environment in their home.
A support system is critical for parents. Having people to talk to about what’s going on or people who can step in during emergencies or unexpected situations turns parenting from super difficult to just difficult. But because of stigma and discrimination around autism, many autistic parents lack this support. They operate differently and can feel out of place in ‘mommy groups’ and other social spaces for them and their kids. Autistic parents may also have a smaller circle of very close friends, versus a wide network of friends, because it’s easier to maintain. Unfortunately, this means the options for support are limited and may get exhausted. It’s also fairly common for neurodivergent people to have many neurodivergent friends, so their friends might not be able to offer as much support as they’d like because they themselves need support that they’re not getting.
Tips for Lack of Support Systems
One piece of advice we received from an autistic parent is to hire what you can’t naturally find. There’s a lot of shame around hiring help. But, if it gets the job done, the shame is unnecessary. Of course this isn’t accessible to everyone right now, so it’s advice that’s very dependent on resources. However, if you have them, don’t be afraid to use them.
This autistic parent recommended keeping a little room in the budget for cleaning, child care, transportation, and any other tasks that take up a lot of emotional and physical energy so your reserves don’t get as depleted. This will leave you with more energy to interactions with your child easier to manage and enjoy.
Empathy and Autistic Parents
It’s a common myth about autism that autistic people lack empathy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. They may not express it in neurotypical ways, but autistic people feel things very strongly and are often very attuned to how others are feeling. Many autistic people notice small shifts in demeanor, which can help them proactively prevent things like meltdowns.
Autistic people understand what it’s like to struggle. Most autistic people don’t manage to escape childhood and young adulthood without enduring a lot of trauma. Being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world means that most autistic people experience feelings of being misunderstood, under-appreciated, and belittled.
The silver lining is that this trauma creates incredibly empathetic parents. They understand the pain their children suffer. So many children, neurodivergent or not, feel left out, lost, or overwhelmed on a regular basis. Autistic parents know these feelings intimately and can guide their children through these experiences with unique levels of love and compassion.
Access Professional Support
Every autistic parent will have a different experience, just as every other parents’ experience raising a child is unique. But with understanding, support, and self-acceptance autistic parents and their children can thrive together.
If you’re struggling as an autistic parent, getting professional support from an adult autism specialist can help. We can address the anxiety and struggles of parenting while also assisting with brainstorming practical solutions to concrete issues. Send us a message to see how we can help or book a free 20 minute consultation call with Dr. Abbene, Dr. Barajas, or Dr. Goldman.