Several months ago, Kristina posted a series of questions in a post at Autismland. One of the questions resonated with me and I’ve thought back to it regularly. Her question, and I’m paraphrasing, was “What’s different between parenting a child with autism and a neurotypical child?”
My initial response to this particular question is exactly the same response that I would give today: “It’s not that different.”
Parenting, at it’s core, involves two primary responsibilities. I’ll refer to the first responsibility as providing and second as nurturing and I’ll describe them in more detail below. Effective parenting stems from balancing the two. The process of balancing these responsibilities is the same whether the child is autistic or neurotypical.
The first responsibility, providing, is more complex than it sounds. It encompasses not only providing for physical needs such as food, clothing, and shelter, but also emotional and intellectual needs. It also includes protecting our children from harm in all of the realms. It means keeping them healthy and educating them. It also means protecting them from making big mistakes, sheltering them from dangerous situations, and advocating for them in a variety of situations.
The second responsibility, nurturing, is similarly complex and also covers the physical, emotional, and intellectual realms. Nurturing is how we help our children grow so that, over time, they depend less and less on others to meet their physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. Nurturing means teaching our children to eat, use the toilet, dress themselves, and interact with others. It also means teaching them to make decisions, and to live with the consequences of those decisions. It includes developing their skills to assess risk in new situations and to advocate for themselves in a variety of settings.
Balancing these two responsibilities is complicated no matter what the child’s strengths and weaknesses are. Almost every choice we make as a parent implicitly includes a decision about this balance. We make these decisions dozens of times each day. The decisions varying from the trivial of ‘should I let my child win while playing checkers?’ to the more significant of ‘What is the best school setting for my child’.
I’m a parent to both autistic and neurotypical children and can say from experience that the decision making process does not vary from child to child. The variation is in the parameters upon which the decision is made including:
- What are my child’s capabilities in regard to this particular situation?
- What are the possible negative outcomes and what are the risks that go along with these outcomes? Is the impact of a negative outcome a short term one or will it be long term set back?
- What are the possible positive outcomes and how significant is the benefit of these outcomes? Positive outcomes can include both the obvious successes as well as the learning that comes from making mistakes.
- What are the possibilities for me to step back if things go better than expected or intervene if things go worse.
- What are my own capabilities to provide and nurture in this situation?
Because the paramaters vary, the appropriate balance between providing and nurturing will vary from child to child and from one situation to another. But the process is the same and it is the process, not the outcome, that defines parenting.
Since reading Kristina’s question, and continuing to reflect on my response, I find that I now continually make decisions in the context of striking the appropriate balance. I’ve always considered this balance in an indirect way, but it’s become more of a conscious, rather than subconscious, part of my decision making. I consider this balance when SJ walks through a parking lot from the car to a store and does not want to hold my hand. I think of it when I ask MJ to do something that he doesn’t enjoy. It comes to mind when LJ discusses his plans for work and college. I think of it when I decide how to introduce a new activity or responsibility any of the boys. Basically, I think about it all the time.