Updated: Jan 31
By Jenni McCabe
Originally posted on Autistic Social Worker
What is Parenting?
Parenting is a privilege. You have the responsibility for supporting another life, or lives, to grow, develop and thrive. In the UK, respective home countries’ laws encapsulate this emphasising the need to assume these responsibilities to earn the rights associated with being a parent.
Parenting is also hard. It takes years of effort, focus, understanding and skills which shift and change over time. It is a perpetual learning journey.
But parenting is a social construct. It is shaped by your experience, your identities, your family scripts, your culture and your socio-political context. Parenting is not a universally shared single experience. So what does good parenting look like? Depends on who’s asking, where, when and why.
As an Autistic Parent
So, I'm looking from this aspect of my experience first. I love being a parent. I love being a parent to Autistic children. In a way, I am glad we are all Autistic as my family is the only place I truly feel like I belong, where I connect. It has meaning, we, together have shared meaning. Well, most of the time.
Teenagers of any neurotype can be challenging to understand, grow with, to re-evaluate our own knowledge and skills as a parent. As can toddlers. In fact, children are amazingly good at highlighting all insecurities, and skills gaps or questioning what we actually ‘know’.
I took a long time to unlearn that parenting is varied – and providing you are not harming yourself or someone else, that's OK. There is no written rule around parenting and, in fact, trends and behaviours shift and change between and within generations.
I couldn’t understand what the big deal was around toddler groups. In fact, I loathed them. They made me and my child stand out, like a gladiator forum, with a crowd of Romans pointing thumbs down every time I tried to be one of them. I couldn’t see the benefit – I sat on my own, or with a few folk I knew and thought they liked me, and my child played on their own. As did most other children, because, that is what they do at that age! And yet we were still clearly different.
I also learned that hugs were not the only way to nurture, to care, to connect. We don’t say I love you. We aren’t demonstrative with affection. But we tell each other that we love and care in different ways. A flick on my nose from my youngest, leaning in from another. Sharing information about something interesting from my eldest and a desire to just be with me, in the same house if not the same room are all signs to me that we are good.
Sometimes I get it wrong (OK, I have gotten things wrong). I misunderstood how my eldest felt when he wanted to stop doing something. I didn’t see how sad my middle girl was at school (until she found a way to share that with me that I got). I cant always tolerate loud noises and my youngest loves noise (made by them). Sometimes our needs collide and I need to work harder to find solutions for us all
So, for me, there are three key aspects of parenting:
Connection - Learn to know your child, feel their rhythms, and attune to their emotional needs. You don’t need to be able to name these emotions, just identify how they underly and inform what your child does and responds to. Our connection can be unspoken, understated but strong. It’s an orchestra of vibes, a power of energies, an alignment of reciprocity. As Autistic people, we can be good at connecting empathically. We also can pick up patterns, and be hyper-vigilant to change. These, I believe are all strengths when connecting with your child.
Communication - So how do you know, how does that connection present? How Autistic people communicate may not be the same as how neurotypical people communicate, be it emotions, need or wants. I am not arrogant enough to believe I know everything about my children, or their wants and needs. So, I need to remain open, curious and interested. I need to keep learning and adjust and adapt when I can. Communication can be spoken, verbalised in other ways, through other mediums such as imagery or creative process, or through behaviour. It can be obvious such as leaving a room, stimming, unassuming such as a murmur, a song, a blink. What is important is that the communication is shared, understood by each other and valued. The parts make up the whole, and equally the whole indicates the parts of what the other person is trying to convey and what you need to focus on. I can have a conversation without saying a word. I kind of like it when that happens as that space belongs exclusively to us. It is precious.
Collaboration - I am all for boundaries don’t get me wrong. They can identify when to stop, how far to go, and what is safe for both a child and a parent. Consent for example is a really important boundary. Collaboration is the shared development of what can be, what is needed for the safe, respectful, authentic development of a parent-child relationship and the identities within this.
And do you know what, this should be for all parenting, not just a neurodivergent mindset? We have transcended the restrictions of the observable, the set requirements of behaviour (while still maintaining respectful valuing of others). We are just waiting for the rest of the human species to catch up. These are not new ideas. If you are looking for an approach that will enhance and illuminate your practice then books such as Ross Greene's work (the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions approach) are a good place to start ( https://drrossgreene.com/)
Please click here for access to the full article expanding on Jenni's role as an Autistic social worker and how to support Autistic parents if you are a social worker.