Raising an autistic child is a journey that, while presenting unique challenges, offers profound rewards. It’s about embracing a world filled with diverse perspectives, creating deep understanding, and nurturing your child’s distinctive way of being.
The first step in this journey is to embrace neurodiversity. Understanding that autism is not a disorder or a condition to be ‘fixed’, but a natural variation of the human brain, is crucial. This perspective, known as the neurodiversity paradigm, recognises autistic brains as equally important and valuable as neurotypical ones, affirming that the autistic experience is valid and not less so, just different.
A key part of parenting an autistic child is focusing on acceptance rather than just awareness. Autism acceptance involves active efforts to understand, accommodate, and celebrate your child’s unique way of being. This acceptance is essential for fostering a sense of belonging and validation, which are crucial for your child’s self-esteem and mental health.
Understanding your child’s communication style is also important. Autistic individuals might communicate differently, with some using verbal language and others using different methods like gestures or pictures. Respecting and supporting your child’s preferred way of communicating is important, as all forms of communication are valid.
Being attentive to sensory needs is also important. Many autistic people have different ways of processing sensory information, which can affect their comfort and well-being. Creating a sensory-friendly environment can help them feel more comfortable and focused. Encouraging your child’s independence and decision-making is equally important. Letting your child make choices and have a say in their life helps build confidence and a sense of control.
It’s highly advisable to avoid harmful behavioural therapies like Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), which often try to make autistic individuals seem less autistic. These therapies can encourage hiding true feelings and behaviours. Numerous autistic-led research studies have shown that ABA can cause significant stress which has a detrimental impact on an individual’s mental health. Instead, look for therapies that respect your child’s independence and uniqueness. Additionally, avoid using labels like ‘high-functioning’ or ‘low-functioning’, as these can be misleading and don’t accurately show an individual’s abilities or challenges. Focusing on understanding and supporting your child’s specific needs and strengths is more helpful.
Encouraging your child’s special interests can be very rewarding. Many autistic individuals have deep, passionate interests that bring joy, self-expression, and expertise. Finding a supportive community is also key. Connecting with other families, autistic adults, and professionals who understand and respect the neurodiversity paradigm can provide valuable insights, resources, and a sense of belonging. The London Autism Group Charity’s free community cafes offer such opportunities. Educating yourself about autism from autistic perspectives and advocating for your child’s rights and needs in various settings like schools and healthcare facilities is essential.
It’s also important for you as a parent to look after your own mental health. Research shows that parents and carers who struggle with their mental health can find it harder to care for and raise their autistic child. Avoid spending too much time thinking about what caused your child to be autistic. Since we know autism is hereditary, use this understanding to consider whether you, your child’s other parent, or other family members might also be autistic. Understanding and embracing your own identity can also be valuable for mental health.
Remember not to overlook the needs of your other children. Research shows that the needs of siblings can sometimes be under-prioritised by parents, leading to poorer mental health among those children. This will be the focus of a future article in this series.
In conclusion, parenting an autistic child is about celebrating their uniqueness, advocating for their needs, and providing a loving and supportive environment where they can thrive. By embracing the neurodiversity paradigm, you’re not only enriching your child’s life but also contributing to a more inclusive and understanding society.
Dr Chris Papadopoulos, James Gordon, Ellie Kolatsi & Sophia Christophi
London Autism Group Charity
For more information and support, you can email us at: [email protected]
Don’t forget you can catch us live on London Greek Radio on the first Thursday of every month on our show ‘All About Autism’.