It’s not at all uncommon to hear the perspective of parenting from the view point of a non-autistic parent that’s raising an autistic child. One of the less common things to hear about is an autistic parent’s experience raising children, including children that are non-autistic. I think it warrants discussion. As autistic parents we can bring a lot to the table and give our children a view of the world that can enrich their experience. We can mold them into adults with an insight into the world that typical enculturation often can’t.
I have two daughter’s living with me. One is four years old and the other 18. Both of my children are non-autistic. My oldest is from my first marriage and I raised her as a single parent for most of her life with the occasional girlfriend thrown in to the mix. This means that she was influenced more by autism than my youngest daughter whose mom is non-autistic.
Despite difficulties in my 18 year old’s life related to her mother, she grew up to finish high school early and started college early. She has her high school diploma and will have a year of college under her belt when her high school class graduates this year. Part of this is due to the example I set regarding education. Continued education is a huge part of my life. She watched me constantly learning and engaging the world around me. My natural curiosity and wonder allowed me to connect with her as a young girl who shared that curiosity and wonder. When her mother’s influence in her life had her reading at the lowest level in her class in first grade, it was my influence that got her reading on a second grade level in three months.
My four year old benefits from this too. At four years old she has learned to count, to some extent, in three languages and is currently working on a fourth. She is already starting to understand adding and subtracting. She loves her microscope and learning about microscopic life, and I enjoy every minute of the experience. I love answering all her questions about the world. Last night while at the mall she asked what made her voice echo, so in the middle of the mall I taught her the basic physics behind an echo. She was so excited to explain it to her mother and demonstrate how it worked. Her daycare teacher told me earlier this week how my daughter told her about evolution, genes, and our distant cousins, the apes.
See, autistic people often have a fascination with various aspects of the world, and a curiosity, that is akin to that of a child, but many of us have developed the skills to learn in a more disciplined way. For me, those moments of education are some of my favorite times with my children, and that has long reaching impacts on how they view education and the world.
Another benefit my children receive is that I can’t parent based on enculturated parenting techniques. I don’t feel the pressure to align my parenting to what is considered socially normal. My parenting is far more calculated. Like my relationships with others, I spend a lot of time studying my children. I’m learning their unique social ques and paying close attention to what their needs and motivations are in the moment. Each experience with my child is specially tailored to that moment and them. There is no cookie cutter parenting. As a result, I very rarely have to use negative reinforcement to discipline my four year old, though it does still happen. She is four after all.
Discipline is a big part of her life, but generally positive discipline. I have begun to emphasis self-discipline more. One might think that notion is crazy with a four year old, but it isn’t as crazy as it sounds. I learned the importance of self-discipline at a young age. Being autistic, I had to learn to control my emotional expression and keep myself calm for the sake of making choices with a clear mind. Now, my experience was one that was often abusive and I have no desire for my child to experience that. Instead I facilitate and guide emotional self regulation, while teaching her how to practice self control. As a result, I have a four year old who has emotional melt downs, but very rarely has temper tantrums. I can do this, because it’s a skill I had to learn to live in the non-autistic world. I know what works.
It’s easy to talk about all the good that comes with being an autistic parent, but I think it’s fair to talk about the difficulties too. Parenting non-autistic children comes with challenges. I know that they need a certain amount of physical contact, which is something that isn’t really important to me. With each of my daughters I made a concerted effort to ensure that they got as much of that as I could give. As uncomfortable as it can be at times, it brings me happiness knowing that it makes them happy or comforts them. Even when my eldest goes through a hard time, she knows she can come to me for a hug.
I also have to deal with non-autistic behavior that drives me crazy. My eldest hasn’t always appreciated my straight forward manor and her early teenager years were non-stop expression of that dislike. Meanwhile, I had to deal with watching all the social problems that she was dealing with knowing that my solutions to those problems wouldn’t work for her. If you are a non-autistic parent and think raising a teenager is maddening, you should try doing it as an autistic parent. Non-autistics, in general, make socialization way more difficult than it needs to be. A teenager, just amplifies that.
Having to consider the social lens by which an non-autistic child bases their world-view and emotions around is one of the hardest parts of being an autistic parent to a non-autistic child. I see a world with much simpler solutions to problems that, if they could just give up this deep emotional need for social acceptance, would make their lives so much simpler and happier. But then I have to think what autistic children go through at the hands of non-autistic parents who think their child’s life would be so much simpler and happier if they had that desire for social acceptance. I have to understand that this is who they are, and I can’t change that wiring, so I do my level best to teach them about socialization from my very analytical point of view.
Finishing on a positive note, I would say that my children grow up learning to hone their empathy and learn theory of mind. I teach them to consider other’s feelings and to consider the other’s person’s point of view. My children are a reflection of me, and the reflection I see is empathetic, caring, compassionate, curious, thoughtful, intelligent, and honest. Are they perfect, no, but who is. Regardless, I had a large hand in shaping these wonderful people. And when people challenge my unorthodox parenting style my fiance responds with the best possible response. She points to my eldest daughter and says, “You may not agree with his methods, but look at his oldest daughter. What he does works, and the proof is in the pudding.”