Taboo Topics – 6. Parenting Problems

I think I’ve procrastinated enough over this one and need to just write something…

This topic is more of a taboo than most – it’s rare for someone on the spectrum to admit to difficulties in the area of parenting. Sometimes that’s from lack of self-awareness (i.e. seeing oneself as a good parent no matter what). Often I believe it is from fear of being labelled a “bad parent”. It’s all very well being open about how one’s autism affects oneself as an individual, but so much harder to be open about how it affects one’s kids.

I’m hoping that what readers have taken from my previous taboo topics was not that autistic people have empathy deficits, that we struggle in relationships, become obsessive about our interests, tend to get fired from our jobs, and may be genderqueer. I’m hoping that the take-aways were more along these lines:

  • autistics typically have deep compassion for others, even if it doesn’t always show in our words or behaviour
  • we can maintain romantic relationships through mutual understanding of each other’s differences and needs
  • our obsessiveness, if channelled appropriately, can be a power for good in society
  • we will typically work our butts off for an employer who is accepting of our differences and willing to provide targeted support
  • unconventional gender presentation is only a problem as far as society believes it to be

My fear is that readers might come away from my posts remembering the negatives and not the positives. However well one tries to explain, this can happen. You can see it in the way the autistic deficit in cognitive empathy has morphed into a common misconception among the public that autistics “have no feelings for others”.

My fear is of the potential for discussion of parenting difficulties to morph into a sense of “autistics make bad parents”. I certainly do not wish to infer any justification for people in authority to use the fact of a person’s autism diagnosis to query whether they should be allowed to have children in the first place, and even whether their kids should be removed from their care.

So when I mention difficulties an autistic person might have with parenting I’m relying on you, my kind reader, not to jump to negative conclusions. Please read to the end of the post!

After all that, I have to admit that many autistic traits, even of the mild Asperger type, can be troublesome when it comes to parenting. Here are a few examples (but note that not every autistic will have all these issues):

  • sensory sensitivities to noise and smells (which may be triggered while looking after babies, for example)
  • difficulties in networking with other parents and finding social support
  • difficulties understanding and providing for the emotional needs of a child, particularly if the child is not autistic themselves
  • discomfort with providing for the social needs of a child, for instance, allowing friends over
  • conflict between the need to spend time with the children versus the need to attend to personal interests/obsessions
  • over-reliance of the parent on the child, as the social communicative abilities of the neurotypical teenager comes to exceed those of the autistic parent

So yes, there are challenges associated with being a parent on the autism spectrum. What I wish to stress is (and I think any parent would agree), there are challenges to being a parent full stop, whoever you are and whatever your neurological makeup.

If we were to look at conditions amongst the population with potential to lead to “bad parenting” what might we think of? Autism, yes. But what about physical disabilities which limit strength and mobility? What about mental health conditions such as schizophrenia or PTSD? Personality disorders such as narcissism and sociopathy? Would we count single mothers? Lower socio-economic status and poverty can certainly play a role, but so can high socio-economic status if it results in arrogance and entitlement.

So basically, if we were to search for people with the potential to be bad parents, we might be looking at the entirety of humanity.

I hope you get what I’m saying. Parenting is challenging for everybody, in one way or another. It is entirely dependant on the individual whether they can work out positive ways to rise to that challenge, within their ability. Some can and some can’t. Why assume that autistics are incapable of recognising and working around their difficulties, or in seeking support if necessary? Autistics can make good parents or bad parents (or more likely, land somewhere in between), just like anybody else.

One more thing before I sign off. Have you heard of the “double empathy theory”? In recent years there’s been research carried out studying the interactions between neurotypicals (NTs) and autistics and between autistics themselves. To paraphrase the findings, it was noted that NTs and autistics tend to misunderstand one another. However, autistics in general had a better understanding of other autistics than the NTs did. In other words, the cognitive empathy deficit goes both ways. It is not just autistics failing to understand NTs, but NTs failing to understand autistics.

What this illustrates is that the discourse on autism has historically been based on negative traits, observed and assessed from a majority NT viewpoint. It is only recently that people have started looking from the autistics point of view. What they discover is that many of these so-called negative traits seem perfectly normal and acceptable to the autist. To us, it may be the NT behaviours which appear insensitive and lacking in understanding and compassion.

I would suggest looking at autistic parenting in the same way. Traditionally, it is the NT majority who have come to a concensus on what type of parental behaviour is good or bad. Yet autistics are frequently appalled – utterly apalled – at the way autistic kids are treated by NT parents and people in authority.

[That was a meltdown not a tantrum – can’t you see the child is not misbehaving, they are overloaded and have no control. They need a quiet safe space to be left alone. What do you expect to happen when you yell at someone in a sensory meltdown? Or yank the arms of someone who is sensitive to touch? Why do you punish a child for behaviour that is out of their control? Have you no empathy at all?]

In other words, perhaps it is autistic parents who should be the authorities on how best to parent an autistic child. In this case, it is worth considering whether an autistic parenting style which seems different, or even wrong according to conventional wisdom, may be just what is needed.

That’s all I wanted to say – over to you.

6 thoughts on “Taboo Topics – 6. Parenting Problems”

  1. Whilst this is a well written post I am not sure I have understood your point. Parenting in general is difficult. No-one is exempt from this, no matter what the child may be termed as having, or what they parent may or may not have. Some so called normal kids can be selfish and most unpleasant and raising them is hard work. Some children have very specified individual needs and this is exceedingly hard on a parent who may lack the knowledge and the stamina for the condition. This is why there is help available.
    However real parenting is not about just the child. Parenting is as much about the parent and their willingness to understand their own limitations and go beyond them for the sake of the child. In recognising your own limitation you can go beyond them because the child needs it even if it means admitting to the child you have those limitations and struggle with the concepts of what the child may need. That is real parenting and no matter where you are in life, spectrum included, you can parent well if you consider the child’s welfare and the fact you might have to take that extra step outside yourself.

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    1. Yes, exactly. That’s pretty much what I intended to say. I should have expanded, perhaps, but I didn’t feel it my place to tell people how to be a good parent. The post was mainly about recognition of typical parenting difficulties for people on the spectrum and how those do not necessarily lead to bad parenting.

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      1. It isn’t your place to tell someone even if you are the best parent in the world but perhaps you needed to clarify what bad parenting is as all you have done is talk around the issue. What are examples? What do you do right and and what do you do wrong and how do spectrum issues cause the problem? I think these are important points. Identifying issues without giving a pathway to improving is just technical talk. I could give you a long list of my mistakes and how I worked hard to counteract, to improve my handling, and I did this by observing, asking others questions and just basically asking for help just as people on the spectrum can do.

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    1. That is their problem. And even if the strategies might have been wrong in certain areas, well, that happens. It is what we do tomorrow that matters because we are always in time to learn.

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  2. I’m not sure you’ve understood the point I was trying to make in my post.
    The difference with this topic and the others is this: If I do something viewed as wrong in other spheres of my life, people may judge privately but won’t interfere – because they will see I’m only hurting myself with my behaviour. So I’m more free to talk about it openly.
    But in the sphere of parenting, if people think you are doing the wrong thing, it may not just be “their problem” as you say – they may decide they need to intervene, or at least call me out, in case my behaviour is damaging the kids. And I have no wish to have to justify myself. That is why I had to approach this topic so cautiously.
    My behaviour is not damaging my kids, by the way, but with autism people always misunderstand why we do what we do, because it is different to their preconceived notions of the right way of doing things. So I feel it’s not worth the risk to myself and my family of opening up further on this topic.
    Maybe another time when I’m feeling braver.

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