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Reconsidering Parenting through an Autism Lens

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

What is Parenting?


Parenting is a privilege. You have the responsibility for supporting another life, or lives, to grow, develop and thrive. In the UK, respective home countries’ laws encapsulate this emphasising the need to assume these responsibilities to earn the rights associated with being a parent.


Parenting is also hard. It takes years of effort, focus, understanding and skills which shift and change over time. It is a perpetual learning journey.


But parenting is a social construct. It is shaped by your experience, your identities, your family scripts, your culture and your socio-political context. Parenting is not a universally shared single experience. So what does good parenting look like? Depends on who’s asking, where, when and why.



 

As an Autistic Parent


So, I'm looking from this aspect of my experience first. I love being a parent. I love being a parent to Autistic children. In a way, I am glad we are all Autistic as my family is the only place I truly feel like I belong, where I connect. It has meaning, we, together have shared meaning. Well, most of the time.


Teenagers of any neurotype can be challenging to understand, to grow with, to re-evaluate our own knowledge and skills as a parent. As can toddlers. In fact children are amazingly good at highlighting all insecurities, skills gaps or questioning what we actually ‘know’.

I took a long time to unlearn that parenting is varied – and providing you are not harming yourself or someone else, that's OK. There is no written rule around parenting and, in fact trends and behaviours shift and change between and within generations.


I couldn’t understand what the big deal was around toddler groups. In fact, I loathed them. They made me and my child stand out, like a gladiator forum, with a crowd of Romans pointing thumbs down every time I tried to be one of them. I couldn’t see the benefit – I sat on my own, or with a few folk I knew and thought they liked me, and my child played on their own. As did most other children, because, that is what they do at that age! And yet we were still clearly different.


I also learned that hugs were not the only way to nurture, to care, to connect. We don’t say I love you. We aren’t demonstrative with affection. But we tell each other that we love and care in different ways. A flick on my nose from my youngest, leaning in from another. Sharing information about something interesting from my eldest and a desire to just be with me, in the same house if not the same room are all signs to me that we are good.


Sometimes I get it wrong (OK a lot of times I have gotten things wrong). I misunderstood how my eldest felt when he wanted to stop doing something. I didn’t see how sad my middle girl was at school (until she found a way to share that with me that I got). I cant always tolerate loud noises and my youngest loves noise (made by them). Sometimes our needs collide and I need to work harder to find solutions for us all


So, for me, there are three key aspects of parenting; Connection, Communication and Collaboration



 

Connection


Learn to know your child, to feel their rhythms, to attune to their emotional needs. You don’t need to be able to name these emotions, just identify how they underly and inform what your child does and responds to. Our connection can be unspoken, understated but strong. It’s an orchestra of vibes, a power of energies, an alignment of reciprocity. As Autistic people, we can be good at connecting empathically. We also can pick up patterns, be hyper-vigilant to change> These, I believe are all strengths when connecting with your child.


Communication


So how do you know, how does that connection present? How Autistic people communicate may not be the same as how neurotypical people communicate, be it emotions, need or wants. I am not arrogant enough to believe I know everything about my children, or their wants and needs. So, I need to remain open, curious and interested. I need to keep learning and to adjust and adapt when I can.


Communication can be spoken, verbalised in other ways, through other mediums such as imagery or creative process, or through behaviour. It can be obvious such as leaving a room, or stimming, or unassuming such as a murmur, a song, a blink. What is important is that the communication is shared, understood by each other and valued. The parts make up the whole, and equally the whole indicates the parts of what the other person is trying to convey and what you need to focus on. I can have a conversation without saying a word. I kind of like when that happens as that space belongs exclusively to us. It is precious


Collaboration


Which makes collaboration so important. I am all for boundaries don’t get me wrong. They can identify when to stop, how far to go, what is safe for both a child and a parent. Consent for example is a really important boundary. Collaboration is the shared development of what can be, what is needed for safe, respectful, authentic development of a parent -child relationship and the identities within this.


And do you know what, this should be for all parenting, not just a neurodivergent mindset. We have transcended the restrictions of the observable, the set requirements of behaviour (while still maintaining respectful valuing of others). We are just waiting for the rest of the human species to catch up.


 

So, what about the social work role?


Assessment runs through the social work task. Some assessments are formally requested such as court ordered parenting assessment, and some are identified as part of an ongoing process to assess need such as a pre-birth assessment or within a needs assessment to identify not just types of support but also threshold of support. For the social worker, a parenting assessment should offer an opportunity to explore the parent-child relationship, any gaps in need being met, or support being provided. It identifies any risk that may need to be addressed and where the parent sits within this. It is an opportunity to really understand the lived reality of the parent, their holistic understanding of their child and next steps for the social worker to take to affect change (if needed).


However, in reality, parenting assessments are neither viewed nor undertaken as a supportive and informative tool. They are the forum for mistrust, anxiety, frustration and demand – for both the social worker and the parent.


Often, assessment comes at a point of crisis or need for a family and a parent may view the exploration of their understanding and skills in their parenting role as a criticism or threat as they are trying to keep a fractious situation together as best they can. Social workers are often assigned an assessment with limited time, and opportunity to do it justice so enter the process stressed and resentful which can be expressed subconsciously in their behaviour with the family. Neither feel empowered by the situation.


Not a great start.


 

Being an Autistic social worker.


Yes we exist! Aside from the misconceptions of Autism within the social work profession, I get so frustrated with the narrow view of parenting that overrides the need for curiosity. The social norms trump the need to understand individuality never mind intersectionality. I know some social workers seek to achieve this and we in the Autistic community really welcome your efforts to genuinely understand us and work with us Autistic parents.


But you are also a minority number in this profession. And that needs to change. There is no excuse.


Assessing the Autistic parent- child relationship


If a parent or child is Autistic, you need to understand Autism. You need to understand Autism as an identity that intersects with other identities of the parent and child. For example, how has gender affected the role of parent and autistic lived experience of the parent. What about age? Are there physical or mental health needs?


Autistic adults are less likely to be in employment than neurotypical people, they may not have had positive experiences of education and are more likely to experience poverty. Their belief systems may be influenced and marred by internalised ableism. Their resources may be limited and not through choice.


Families are not always supportive. There is a difference between helpful and supportive. You need to be able to identify which system family members sit within in this respect, never assume. Listen to the language, the words, the symbols – yes the communication. Observe the connection, or lack of, between Autistic parent and their parents or extended family members. What messages are the Autistic parents receiving from them and their wider community.


If you are assessing a family where a child is Autistic, consider the possibility at least one parent may also be Autistic. What do they need to share what they really feel, want and need with you. If they are reluctant to meet with you, have you considered whether you are clear with your purpose, or making it a safe space for parent to feel they can try and relate with you. Have you demonstrated you are worth trusting?



 

Ditch the myths and see beyond


What are you looking for? Eye contact is irrelevant. Physical contact may or may not happen. Sit in that family’s home and connect. Mentalise the experience of sensory overload, being misunderstood, creating new language and meaning to feel nurtured, safe, belonging, attached.


A child may not cry when their parent leaves the room. Does that mean they are not securely attached? Or does it mean you have not noticed that they have increased certain stims, halted a movement or behaviour, communicated they are distressed in a different manner, until that parent returns or they are soothed another way.


Work in partnership with that family. Earn their trust and you will gain so much more. Sit with patience, humility and genuine willingness to learn. And you will learn.


Support needs to respond to need, not the resources available. Or your assumptions. We can be quite good problems solvers (we have to be to survive) so lets collaborate. Let go of parenting classes as the go-to solution, unless we think it may be helpful. Be creative, but don’t give up. Because whether we, or you, like it or not, you are the gatekeeper of potential success. Medical modelling has seen to that in this Western, capitalist society.


There are parents who abuse their child. There are parents who, through action or inaction cause harm to their child. There are parents who want to learn and change. There are parents who don’t. The key here is to be confident in your professional role, that you have understood the lived reality of that child and that parent through their eyes. And that needs to include understanding their (our) Autistic culture as much as other aspects that shape who they are, what they know and what they do. You cannot assess and analyse risk or develop support in response to need without this. Lets be really clear here – if you don’t, you are being ableist.


So….


Whether you are an Autistic parent to a child or a social worker working with an Autistic parent and/or child, remember - connect, communicate and collaborate. There are not new ideas. If you are looking for an approach that will enhance and illuminate your practice then books such as Ross Greene's work (the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions approach) are a good place to start ( https://drrossgreene.com/)


Have you committed to learn this new language, this inclusive, anti-oppressive practice? You need to. Autistic parents and autistic children depend on you to do so. Because the damage can be horrific if you don’t.


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