Parenting First, Autism Parenting Second

It’s common in the autism community to say (in effect) “because of autism, you have to do parenting this way.” This medicalizes the parent-child relationship; it converts the parent into a therapist, and risks looking at the child as “autism” rather than as a person.

I believe that most parenting decisions hinge on individual traits of family members, on context, and on one’s values. One’s exact approach may have to adapt to autistic traits; but other factors matter much more than anything we can assume from the autism label.

The breadth of parenting approaches

Parents are very different from one another. Here are some examples:

Parenting approach tends to be deeply entangled in cultural and religious background. A family’s daily life, and family members’ senses of self, arise in part from decisions about parenting.

It’s very common to see heated discussions of parenting approach on the internet (nothing to do with autism – I mean general parenting discussion).

People are very quick to judge others.

I expect most families have a reality that’s quite a bit more nuanced than these philosophical debates.

All of the parenting approaches in my list above, and many others, can be adapted to an autistic child. The values embedded in these approaches can still be expressed.

Many general parenting debates mirror debates in the autism community. For example, Alfie Kohn argues that typical families and schools today overuse extrinsic motivation.

The importance of context

In our rush to judge, we often forget the importance of context.

Parenting is a long gradual adjustment to developmental level; as a child ages, we expect more of them. Parents must continually adapt their expectations and approaches. If we see a parent we don’t know interacting with a child we don’t know, we might guess at developmental level based on the child’s age, but we could be quite wrong; as anyone acquainted with autism will realize.

Parenting has everything to do with context. If you see a parent buy their child candy, was that the only candy this month, or does their child live on candy? Most likely somewhere in between. But you don’t know.  If you see a parent react to misbehavior in a certain way, what preceded the misbehavior? What rules does the child know, what have they been asked to do? You don’t know.

What does a certain child consider to be a reward or a punishment? You don’t even know that, if you’re watching a parent-child pair. My son was staying up yesterday night doing a math workbook when he was supposed to be sleeping. Other parents might assign math workbook time as a punishment. Who knows.

Children respond to different styles

Many have made the observation that different kids seem to need something different from parents. One child might find rules chafing, and revolt against them vigorously in a way that makes everyone miserable. Another child might find it anxiety-inducing to lack clear guidance, and be much happier with a schedule and instructions to “do this, then do that.”

As parents we may often need to suppress our own vision of the kind of parent we’d like to be, and replace it with a vision of the kind of parent we’ve discovered that our child needs.

The parenting style that worked so well for one parent with their child, may be entirely inappropriate and even disastrous for another parent with another child.

Perhaps it’s a mistake to be too ideological about parenting, when ideology can blind us to the particulars of the children we have.

Families have different needs

Many (probably most) parents choose a few lines in the sand, where some rule of the household has to be followed or the family just won’t function. For some it might be keeping messes cleaned up, for others it might be that everyone gets enough sleep, for others it might be a period of quiet time after school, for others it might be eating dinner together, for another it might be going to church or using respectful language.

These traditions vary a lot across families, and they depend on individual values and temperaments. Like making a marriage work, to make a whole family work involves compromise, finding the place where all the people involved can coexist. There’s no “right way” to navigate these issues; it depends on who’s involved.

Keeping the focus on family

It’s harmful for any of us to tell parents how to parent, based purely on “autism,” with no knowledge of their specific family or specific child or specific cultural background.

Many autism therapy programs include a valuable parent training component, and parents do need and appreciate hearing experiences of autism, from autistic people, from other parents, and from autistic parents. I’ve found parent coaching incredibly helpful; and many parents say their “autism parenting” coaching helped them quite a bit with their non-autistic kids too.

But in these contexts, we have to draw careful lines. There’s a line between helpful advice and “back-seat parenting.” There’s a line between providing information and dictating our own values to other people.

I’ve seen both therapists and autism community members step over these lines. I’ve also seen parents violate their own lines, searching for and using someone else’s autism-related advice when they should be making a decision based on their values.

Most importantly, there’s a human, everyday parent-child relationship. There’s a family, and happy families find quirky and distinctive ways to make the family work for all the family members, even if it looks a little strange from the outside.


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