I am often asked what it’s like to parent an autistic child. My son is 10 and has been diagnosed with level 3 ASD. This essentially means he needs a lot of support to be successful in his daily life. ASD level 3 is often characterized by severe challenges in social communication as well as extremely inflexible behaviors. Children with this diagnosis are often non-verbal or have very limited communication abilities. My son also carries several additional diagnoses including apraxia, ADHD, PICA, and a genetic variant called FOXP2 which affects his ability to communicate.
You are probably wondering if he speaks? Yes, he does! While he cannot have a functional conversation, he can answer yes or no questions, tell us if something hurts, tell us if he needs help and often he can tell us what he wants. For example, “Mommy, can you help us turn the lights back off/on?” means he’d like me to turn the lights on or off. Scripting is another thing he often does. This comes in the form of repeatedly singing songs he loves or repeating word for word episodes of his favorite TV shows.
Our parenting style reflects a strengths based approach with no shaming of stimming behavior and absolutely no redirection. It is evident that our son must MOVE energy, his mind and body are almost constantly in motion while he is awake. He attends an ABA based private school for children on the autism spectrum with significant needs. They follow our lead when it comes to behavior modification or lack thereof. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have consequences or support for inappropriate or unsafe behavior, he absolutely does but not for arm and hand flapping, pacing, or running back and forth across the room. Those behaviors bring him comfort and control over his own body.
Many things are really complicated and challenging for him but that’s not where our focus is as parents. We support his strengths, of which are many. He’s an amazing little artist, drawing pictures of creatures displaying big feelings on their faces. He LOVES to swim. Find this child a body of water or a bathtub and he is filled with joy. He finds peace and comfort outside in nature. He loves to play at the local playground or to dig holes in the backyard, play in the sandbox and collect leaves, rocks, and tree branches.
While our son is considered globally delayed, he’s making wonderful progress academically in school. He loves numbers, so at home and at school we focus on the curriculum that he really enjoys like counting money, measuring his favorite toys or using tactile manipulatives to do addition/subtraction and multiplication. He’s also learning to read, which is absolutely amazing. He’s moving from having memorized the words in the books to actually sounding out new words in new books.
The most important piece of a strengths based approach parenting style of an autistic child is allowing as much opportunity for choice as possible. He has lots of opportunities to pick activities, foods/snacks, TV shows, books, etc. It is very important to us that he gets to feel as empowered as his neurotypical fraternal twin brother.
My son is my biggest and best teacher. He can push every single button I have, bring up every big feeling possible, make me doubt every parenting choice I’ve ever made, make me slow down, observe and listen, make me pause before taking action. He’s a gift and I am so grateful that I get to be his mom. He makes me a better human every single day. He and his brother are my heart. It’s not my job to change my son, it’s my job to educate and change the world to accommodate him.
–Kate H., Boston, MA.