If you Google “parent with autism,” dozens of pages come up for helping parents with children who are on the spectrum. But what happens when those kids grow up and have kids of their own?
It’s a taboo subject sometimes, but neuro-atypical doesn’t mean unable or undeserving of having a family. People with autism fall on a spectrum, and those on the very mild end — what used to be considered Asperger’s syndrome — may not even know they are on the spectrum until later in life.
I was one of those people. The year before we had our daughter, I was diagnosed on the spectrum.
A parent with autism has all the challenges a neurotypical parent does but magnified. So how do we cope and be the best parent we can? Start with self-care.
Before you have children, build a support network — people to vent to, people to solve problems with, people who can step in when you inevitably get overwhelmed. A spouse or partner cannot be your sole support. It takes a village to raise a kid. It always has. It’s OK to ask for help. If you don’t have friends and family but you do have financial resources, hire a babysitter or nanny so you can sleep or take time for yourself.
Having kids will push your boundaries. Build flexible routines that are child-focused or activity-focused more than time-focused. Kids can’t tell time. Routines get messed up, but the good news is that kids like routines.
In my house, we wake up and say good morning. We eat breakfast in the kitchen. I make tea and do dishes. When my toddler is done with breakfast, I clean her hands and then her table. We do laundry and make bottles for her brother. Then we play. Every activity has its own smaller routine with cues like turning lights off and lighting a candle before naptime or an order like me brushing my teeth while she tries to do it and then I help her brush.
A doctor once told me that it is good to make plans but not to get to set in them. Anything can happen, so it is important to adapt to the change instead of being rigid. It’s like a river: It flows in the same direction every day. Many times, things go according to plan, but sometimes the water splashes out. Sometimes the banks are full after rain, and sometimes it even floods. Rarely the river runs dry and then it is time to find the problem and make a new path.
The Senses and Stimulation
The world is full of loud noises and gross smells and constant invasion of personal space. A baby blazes into the world, an overload of all the senses.
You can’t shut a baby out with headphones either. You need to hear and learn the types of cries to attend to the baby’s needs. When the kid gets older, you need to hear if your child calls for you or is choking or any of the dangers that toddlers are determined to face.
Instead of plugging in:
Listen to your podcasts, music, audiobooks out loud
Engage kids to dance to your music
Put in earplugs to soften the noises, as long as you keep eyes on the kids
Constant touching and tugging:
If you choose to breastfeed, it may help to pump. This way, someone else can feed the baby and you can not be touched once in a while.
If you want your hands free but your kid wants to be held, try a carrier. Some of them let you clip the kid to your back and — bonus! — many times the kid falls asleep.
If your child can talk, try to explain in simple terms that you need some time and have them help you take deep breaths by mimicking. Kids love to help.
Compromise. Sometimes the child wants to sit in your lap. Tell them that they can sit next to you or lay their head in your lap instead. If they want you to hold them while you prepare a meal or use the bathroom, get a small step stool that they can use to see what you are doing. Kids just want to be involved.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am not great at socialization. When I needed a brain break from eye contact and chatter, I would bring them to a family member’s house and watch them socialize. This way the pressure was off of me but I wasn’t dumping the child on them either.
If you don’t have a partner or family that is good at socializing, I used to say that you should sign up for playdates or take kids to the park. Things have changed since COVID-19, but the important thing is that kids learn by seeing others. If they have siblings or close cousins, use that to your advantage. If you can find trusted families, go forward with playdates.
Take time off whenever you can, even if you don’t need it yet. Recharge or nap during naptime. If your kid is too old for naps, implement a quiet time. This can be a quiet activity like blocks or puzzles, reading or writing, or a movie on low volume. Turn the lights out or dim them.
If you are sending your kids back to school, or if they have their own in-person therapies, take an hour or so of that time to yourself. Drink a tea or read or whatever calms you.
Share your passions
Kids are natural learners and like to do what adults do. If you start them early, they will probably glom on to your interests. Whether it’s Minecraft or Lego or dinosaurs, get books on their level about the topic. Show them your collection or accomplishments. Get toys their size and play together.
Find a Deadline
Remember that you only have to withstand the intensity through for a certain time frame. That may be until nap time or bedtime. It may be until your partner gets home. In the bigger picture, the nighttime wake-ups do not last forever. At best, they peter out at 6-months-old. At worst, it can be until toddlerhood. Preschool starts at age 3 and kindergarten at age 6. Whatever stage bothers you will not last forever.
Aja Hannah is a writer, traveler, and mama. She believes in the Oxford comma, cheap flights, and a daily dose of chocolate.