I’m going to write a bit today about “The Unique Challenges of Autism and Children”, by which I do not mean the unique challenges of having autistic children, especially since the dialogue around autism is saturated with accounts of those. What I mean is the unique challenges of being autistic and having children. I don’t think they get enough air-time in a parent-dominated discussion.
I write this, not to the exclusion of autistic people who are not parents, but to expose a particularly under-reported niche. Parents can be autistic too. In fact, given the genetic link, they’re quite likely to be. Autistic parents also used to be autistic children, and I think we need to look at exactly what that means.
First up, we’ve got our own struggles, independent of being parents. Most of us suffer from spoon shortages (not enough energy to get through the day), sensory aversions, difficulty with social interactions and weak spots with our ability to manage time and plan activities. Even without kids, all of this can be exhausting.
It comes as a bit of a blow, then, when we go online and find non-autistic parents, most of whom have the advantage of being neurotypical, complaining about how exhausting parenting an autistic child is. I mean seriously? You guys have so many advantages. It’s quite likely that you didn’t have a problem with finding enough energy for the day before you had kids. It’s quite likely you maintained an active social life, hobbies, plans. Many autistic people don’t start from that place. We often start with less in the fuel tank, so to speak. To hear you complain about how hard it is for you, when we have to juggle our own disabilities on top of parenting, you can imagine how that feels.
Thing is, we’re doing the same job as you, but we’re doing it with the memory of being an autistic child, too. We’re trying to parent, and we’re trying to parent well, but we’re also trying not to parent in the way that we were parented. Most of us are at that age where we missed out on diagnosis, when autism was just starting to be widely known about in medical circles. But breaking the tradition of gaslighting, abuse and neglect is hard. Really hard. It’s mostly down to a thing we refer to as internalised ableism. All the times our parents told us to stop being silly about a sensory aversion, or to just get on with something we needed a ritual for have stayed with us. Our entire map for how to deal with childhood autism is skewed not only by society’s generalised ableism, but by the ableism we have been exposed to personally. When “get over it” is the only answer you’ve ever heard, it’s far too easy to find yourself parroting it to your child.
Adopting a different parenting technique to the one that was used on you is hard. Add to that the emotional turmoil of knowing what your child is going through and it’s emotionally draining.
I mentioned sensory issues before. You think your child’s screaming is annoying? Try experiencing it when you have an aversion to loud sounds. Not the normal, neurotypical “gosh, that’s a bit loud, I wish it would stop”, but the nails-down-a-blackboard agony of a sound that hurts you in ways I can’t even begin to describe. What if your child is a sensory seeker and you’re sensory averse? You’ve got to keep your cool, be respectful to your child and try to balance everyone’s sensory needs. You’ve got to do this at the same time as being hit with one or more meltdown triggers.
Autistic parents are nearly always forgotten when people start talking about parental support. Heck, autistic parents are often silenced when advocating for their children simply because it’s assumed that their autism is equal to irrationality that can be ignored. When we ask for parent spaces to remain respectful to autistic people, and not to follow the tragedy narrative, we’re often ignored.
The world is not divided neatly into “neurotypical parents” and “autistic children”. There are autistic adults who are not parents, but still have a valid contribution to make to our knowledge of autism and our policy regarding autism. There are autistic parents who have, in addition to a unique set of challenges, a unique perspective of both parent and autistic, with memories of being an autistic child. There are your autistic children themselves, who should be enabled and encouraged to advocate for their own needs. None of these people are the enemies of (presumed) neurotypical parents. When we object to something you’re doing, it’s because we’ve been on the receiving end, or can imagine being on the receiving end, and know that it hurts.
All we want is for your kids (and our kids) to be happier than we were. We want to break the cycle.