Parenting What Matters to Your Autistic Child

As a parent, you always hope that the things you teach your child will be meaningful when they are older; that they will look back on their childhood and appreciate the time you spent together and the lessons you taught them. But as a parent, it can be very difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to what life lessons are actually important, and it can be even more difficult when you are an nonautistic parent of an autistic child. The things that will actually matter to your autistic child when they are an adult may not be what you think, value, or know.

Things your autistic child will absolutely NOT care about as an autistic adult.

  1. The correct way to play, whatever that means. There is no “right” way to do it. If they want to line up their toys, let them. If they want to read a book alone in the corner, let them. If they want to hold the same birthday party over and over, let them. Play develops cognitive skills, physical abilities, and new vocabulary. Play reduces stress. Play by autistic children might look different, but that does not make it meaningless or wrong.
  2. Perfect grades. Many parents of autistic students proudly describe their child as “smart”, “brilliant”, or “high achieving”. Intelligence serves as a place for parents to hang pride and joy, when other culturally valued social or physical skills (like athleticism, popularity, volunteerism) are not of interest or are lacking. Excellent grades become the proof their autistic child is not all that different and belongs to a group (of “nerds”). But, how many job interviews have you been on that have asked for your high school transcript? This isn’t to say that school isn’t important; the things learned there can be valuable. However, intellect is the not the only valuable quality autism has bestowed on your child. 
  3. “Hold still.” “Quiet hands.” “Don’t do that.” Please don’t punish or shame your autistic child for stimming. You aren’t reducing the need to stim; you are teaching them to be embarrassed and ashamed about their need to stim. Autistic adults stim, too (as do nonautistics, except then we just call it “fidgeting”). Stimming helps focus, releases anxiety, burns extra energy, and is a natural part of being autistic. Help your child explain stimming to peers, rather than explaining it away. 
  4. Eye contact. They will learn to fake it just fine, promise. 
  5. “Popular fashion”, unless they ask for help with it. Most autistic adults adopt their own sense of style, finely attuned to and informed by their own personal interests and sensory needs. Same goes for makeup and stylish hair, both of which present sensory nightmares.  As long as their hygiene is good, leave ‘em be.
  6. Speaking. Not everyone uses spoken words to communicate. There are many ways to communicate and they are all valid. No one is any less intelligent, important, or valid because of the way they do or do not communicate. What is important is early access to communication, be it spoken language, sign language, or AAC. 
  7. Don’t try to make them “less autistic”. Just...don’t. Trying to change something about them — such as discouraging hand flapping, rocking, echolalia, their love of trains, Lego, or routines — for no reason other than to make your child seem “less autistic” is never going to be helpful, and will only send a damaging message. Their autism is part of who they are. You can’t separate autism from them, nor them from autism. Trying to make them less autistic will only serve to make them feel like they need to be less of who they are, as if who they are is somehow wrong. That’s not fair to anyone, no matter who they are.  
  8. They WILL NOT acclimate to loud noises, bright lights, itchy clothes, or whatever else is unbearable to them. Do not believe those who tell you (or sell you) otherwise. Autistic people have hyper-aware senses. Whether consciously or not, most autistic people are fighting a sensory assault from the environment at all times. Forced exposure will not “acclimate” them to these things or make them better able to tolerate them. It will cause meltdowns, shutdowns, anxiety, and trauma. 

Things your autistic child will care about as an autistic adult.

  1. Show an interest in all of their special interests. Go to their plays, concerts, and sporting events. Take them to the library or bookstore. Watch them play their video and computer games, or play with them. Learn about the topics they talk about routinely. Watch some YouTube videos with your child and by yourself (to educate yourself). Make sure they know you are aware of, interested in, and proud of the things they do outside of the classroom.
  2. Pay attention to your child’s struggles and get them help when they need it. Are they struggling with math? Reading? Find out what you need to do to see if they need some extra help in those subjects. Maybe they have dyscalculia or hypotonia. Make sure they know that it’s ok to need some extra help and that you are still proud of them.
  3. The only label your autistic child will care about is the pointless itchy one on their shirt collar. Don’t hide their autism from them because you are afraid of labels, or maybe just this label. Teach them about it so that they can understand themselves more fully. Teach them that their autism is something to be proud of.  Something you are proud of.
  4. Your child may not be able to put words to it, but they will remember how you made them feel about autism before and after you told them. Please don’t make them feel like their diagnosis is a shameful secret. You can help this by not treating it like one yourself. Don’t talk about the diagnosis only in hushed whispers; speak about it confidently and openly. Don’t make them feel like they or their autism are burdens. Your child does not need to be privy to discussions about how much their care of any kind costs, autism-related or not. Nor do they need to be told how much of a strain this will place on the family. 
  5. Teach your child about sex. Trust me, they have heard about it, seen something about it, or read about it far before you are ready to talk about it. Provide accurate facts. Define age-appropriate slang. Explain masturbation, stalking, pornography, rape, consent laws, how to put on a condom. Teach signs someone is interested (sexually) and is NOT interested (sexually). Open a dialogue so that they don’t have to ask a friend or the internet. Because, they will. The goal is not to have the first or last word, rather it is to be realistic, accurate, and trustworthy.
  6. Your child may not remember what words you used to explain autism, but they will remember how you said it. Who was around? Who wasn’t? Did they feel like they were in trouble? Being told a secret? Chances are, your child already knew something. They might not have had a name but they had a sense, a very strong sense, of being different. For some, they even felt wrong or broken. Can you blame them? Without an explanation for why situations don’t make sense, why people are mean and confusing, and why someone is always correcting them, who wouldn’t conclude they are the problem.
  7. Celebrate their autism. Yes, it can have it’s challenges, but celebrate the ways in which it makes them unique and wonderful. Celebrate the amazing ways in which their mind works. Celebrate the special ways in which they see the world like no one else.
  8. Remember that everything you post online lives on. That Tweet about the horrible tantrum (cough - actually a meltdown - cough) that ruined your day? The video on Facebook about how tired you are with the bedtime routine? Your autistic child WILL SEE them, either in childhood or adulthood. Either way, these comments damage your child’s self-esteem and prolong the community’s narrative that autism is a negative, a “burden”, something to be “dealt with” or “combated”.