Parents often feel that they don't know how to help their child. We worry they aren't doing enough or the right things. We get caught up in the fears about their future, about school, about falling further behind. We lean more and more on professional advice, believing they know better. But remember, the one essential thing that a child needs to develop optimism, resilience, and happiness in life is just one compelling, charming, and connected person. And that person is you. That's all. It sounds deceptively simply. But that's the one thing that will help them overcome difficulties, build resilience, know themselves, and connect with others. And it's not that you have to parent perfectly. You just have to be there - be present, listen, respond, be playful, compassionate, and responsive. You can and you will make mistakes. But being a connected parent allows you to make those mistakes. The flexibility in a relationship absorbs those mistakes and turns them into stronger connections. You make a mistake, you talk about it with your child, you both learn and bond over it. Don't make the mistake of handing over the most critical part of a childhood foundation - your relationship takes precedence over everything. Time with you should be the priority - more than time in therapy, school, or with peers. You provide the model, the safe place, the warmth, the acceptance, the flexibility, the compassion, the learning, and the play that your child needs most. You are the key. When you feel defeated, when you feel afraid, when you feel worried, you'll need to read this over again. And believe it. Be there for your child, listen, be the safe place, be the fun place. You are the key.
Autism Is Not A Parenting Fail I originally published a version of this essay on my blog. It received so many comments that I published it on The Huffington Post. The message is one that parents and autistic people do not hear often enough, so I'm repeating it here. Autism is not a parenting fail. Autism is not a person fail. When my child was younger, everything seemed so hard. He didn't hold a bottle, sit up, walk or talk on the pediatrician's timeline. We did physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. I asked every provider I could, "Why does he repeat phrases?" "Why does he like playing with doors, but not toys? I asked, "Could it be autism? And they said no. I was trying to help him eat. Why was eating hard for him? Why did he refuse solid foods? Why would he eat one brand of pureed green beans, but not another? Why did he never ask for food? People said he would eat if he was hungry enough. They said I was spoiling him. I was trying to help him sleep. Why did he wake up terrified? Why couldn't he sleep? All the parenting experts told me I was doing it wrong. They said I shouldn't rock him, pick up him up or co-sleep. They said I was reinforcing poor sleep habits. They said I caused his anxiety. I was trying so hard. And everywhere I turned, I heard that I was doing it wrong. That is the landscape of parenting an autistic child, a child who is misunderstood, mislabeled and mistreated. When society doesn't understand the reasons behind behavior, it's the child's fault. And it's the parent's fault. We get used to people not believing our experience, finding little help and feeling like we have failed our child. That landscape needs to change. It is not parents nor our children who are failing. We didn't create the model of autism that says they are Not Normal and must learn to be Normal. We didn't create a developmental timeline that doesn't allow for variations for those children that just need more time. We didn't look at the outside behavior and ignore the inside neurology. What if, instead, you had been told this: You've done nothing wrong. You didn't cause this. You haven't failed your child. Your child is not failing. You were given an instruction manual for a Ford and your child is a Ferrari. So, congratulations! Your child is NOT fundamentally different from other children. You just need the right instruction manual. Parenting your child will be more intense. You'll need more patience and time. Your child will have intense emotions and needs. But they'll also have intense curiosity, drive, determination, desire, persistence and individuality. What you'll need to find is the right fuel, the right environment and the right supports. With those, your child has great potential. With the right supports, they will have a happy and fulfilling life. All that is true. You'll need to read it again. And you'll need to read it to your family, friends and school system. You'll need to read it to the experts. You'll need to read it loudly and frequently. You'll need to share it widely and often. Because everyone needs to know.
Autistic children often hold in their upsets when they are with others until they get home with their parents and let it all out. Popular autism advice suggests that their ability to hold it in and release it at a later time shows willfulness - that our children are deliberately misbehaving. They tell us that the parent who "allows" the child to melt down with them is being manipulated or letting the child get away with "bad behavior." That advice is a misunderstanding of our children's attachment to their parents. Autistic children know, every child knows, that out there, the world is risky. If you show your fear or upset, other people will tease you, make you feel bad, punish you. It is a deep human instinct to hide our feelings when we don't feel safe with others. When our children trust us and feel safe with us, they let all the upsets for the day spill out. They know we will take care of them, keep them safe. They know THIS person is my safety net, who will catches me when I fall. This ability - to hold in their upsets and release them to their parent - is a strength. They know who to trust. They value the relationship with us. They are sharing the difficult parts of their day with us - even without words. We honor that bond when we calmly and compassionately allow them to release their upsets. We encourage them to share their most difficult situations with us. We understand that we are their most trusted confidant.