Bringing up a child with autism can be both challenging and rewarding. Children with autism don’t communicate, play, or behave like their neurotypical peers, and their behaviors can be confusing, frustrating, or frankly upsetting to some parents or guardians.
At the same time, children with autism have strengths and abilities that can only emerge when a parent is tuned in and willing to engage in a way that works best for their child. This means that, when you have a child with autism, it’s not always best to just go with what feels natural to you as a parent or guardian.
You may need to modify your parenting style or natural preferences to meet a child’s needs. In other words, you may need to consciously avoid these parenting styles that can quickly undermine your relationship with a child on the autism spectrum.
Helicopter parents hover over their children, watching and reacting to their every move. They leap in to help when a problem appears on the horizon; they intervene to smooth every path; they insist on special treatment for their progeny.
Helicopter parenting is less than ideal for any child, as it makes independence and self-determination especially difficult to achieve.
Parents or guardians of children with autism are prone to helicopter parenting because they worry that their child with autism will run into problems they can’t resolve—and, of course, that’s perfectly possible.
But if helicopter parenting stunts the development of neurotypical children, imagine what it does for children with autism. Unable to learn by observation and example, children with autism must learn through direct instruction and by actually doing.
When you step in to do their work, you’re denying your child the opportunity to understand what’s needed, experience the challenge of trying, enjoy the thrill of success, or gain the knowledge developed through the process of failure.
Any parent or guardian who’s been part of a Mommy and Me group knows all about competitive parenting. Whose baby potty trained first? Said the first word? Is taking the most classes, learning to dance or sing, playing peewee soccer, or studying Chinese?
When you have a child with autism, it can be hard to avoid feeling that the child in your care is being left behind. But when you buy into competitive parenting, you are certain to develop a sense that the child in your care is not up to par and that you, as a parent, are probably to blame.
As you can imagine, the outcome is a feeling that neither you nor the child you are raising is good enough. The impact of such feelings on a child with autism may not be obvious, but they are real.
Hands-Off (Free-Range) Parenting
Some parents and guardians believe that their child should be allowed to follow their own pursuits and interests without parental interference. That works well for certain neurotypical children who are self-directed, self-motivated, and eager to interact with others. It’s not, however, a very good choice for a child with autism.
While every child certainly needs and deserves “down” time, children with autism really do need regular, focused parental engagement. That’s because, in most cases, children with autism need your help to actively learn to pretend, socialize, converse, ask questions, and investigate the world.
Without another person to help them build these critical skills, children with autism can become increasingly withdrawn and self-focused—and less capable or desirous of engaging in the wider world. They’ll also have less opportunity to build on their strengths and achieve their own potential.
Perfectionist (Tiger) Parenting
Yes, some children thrive with parents who absolutely insist upon straight A’s, top athletic performance, perfect grammar, and ideal table manners. Those children are unlikely to be autistic.
The reality is that children with autism, while they may have many strengths, may have a very tough time with many neurotypical childhood expectations. Their verbal skills may be compromised, making high grades and perfect grammar may not be achievable. They may have difficulty with physical coordination, making athletics particularly tough.
Of course, it’s important to have high expectations, even for a child with disabilities, but make those expectations too high, and you and the child in your care are in for unhealthy levels of stress.
As the parent of a child with autism, you may feel that they should have no expectations placed on them outside of school or therapy. After all, it’s tough for autistic kids to function in school, and they deserve a break.
You may even feel it’s unreasonable to ask the child in your care to complete household tasks, learn to calm themselves, or control their behavior. The unfortunate result of this kind of “do whatever you want” parenting teaches a child to learn habits and behaviors that will create serious problems down the line.
Autism does make some things more difficult, but in almost every case children with autism can do a great deal if they are asked and encouraged to do so. When you set the bar low, or offer a child with autism too little discipline, you are actually making it more difficult for them to understand or live up to high expectations.
Understanding a child’s challenges is one thing; assuming a child to be incompetent is something very different and harmful.
Since they woke up this morning, a preschooler with autism has had five hours of behavioral therapy, an hour apiece of speech and physical therapy, two hours of parent-guided play therapy, and four hours of school.
As soon as the child falls into an exhausted sleep, you jump on the Internet to find yet another therapeutic class, program, activity, or resource to add to the schedule. With so much going on, the child with autism in your care has no opportunity to practice what they have learned, to actually meet and get to know another child, or to simply do what children do—play.
Rather than frantically searching for and engaging in therapies and activities, consider the possibility that a few hours a day of calm, unfocused parent or guardian-and-child time might be just the thing a child needs to grow and thrive.
A Word From Verywell
No parent or guardian is perfect, and parents or guardians of children with disabilities are under more pressure than most. Some parents or guardians may be coping with severe behavioral issues that can even be frightening. That means you may be more overwhelmed, tired, frustrated, or anxious than the average parent or guardian, and have fewer financial or emotional resources to bring to the table.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s more than okay to reach out for respite or support, whether from other family members and friends or from local organizations that provide services to families with disabled members. Remember that caring for yourself will allow you to support the child in your care in the best possible way.