Co-parenting when your partner is on the autism spectrumWritten by Nicole Mar
What's inside this article
My husband and the father of my children is autistic.
He’s also kind, hardworking and dedicated. Lots of what is good about him and some of what makes life pretty challenging has to do with autism.
In recognition of Autism Awareness Month, I’m writing this article to honour the autism spectrum parents who love, support and protect their children, as well as the neurotypical partners (individuals of typical developmental, intellectual and cognitive abilities) who steer these genuine efforts in a positive direction.
Autism – a paradox
The DSM-5 acknowledges several hallmark characteristics of autism. These behaviours create a kind of “twice exceptionality” in which many are quite gifted but also need help and support. Let’s start with their strengths.
Strengths of autistic parents
Routines are what many live by. They help autistic parents create a daily schedule for their children. Children usually respond well to routines because they provide stability and structure. Attention to detail takes on an entirely new meaning for many autistic parents. My husband thinks exclusively in detail and notices what others may not. This is great when the washing machine needs repairs or we need to make a list of equipment for an extracurricular activity.
Homework help is something many autistic parents can offer. My husband loves research, so he is well studied, enjoys the learning process, and is very curious. Many autistic parents can help their child complete a class project with great care, effort and possibly even enthusiasm.
Reliability is a marked attribute of many autistic parents. As long as a commitment is plugged into the routine, there’s a strong chance they will stick to the plan. Honesty is another trait. They often have no filter and say things people sometimes need to hear. My husband doesn’t shy away from standing for what is morally right, and this is a very good example for our children.
If autistic parents have a budget, they can adhere to it. Like everyone, some are big spenders and some are thrifty, so a budget can keep things in perspective. This way, needs are met without it being too extravagant or too miserly.
Challenges for autistic parents
But there are challenges as well. Autistic parents love their children and are committed to caring for their needs, yet they may have more challenges than neurotypical parents. Discipline is tough for many autistic parents. Children need discipline to understand boundaries, but when autistic parents themselves struggle to understand the nuances behind the rules, it can be downright hard for them to know when something is okay and when some behaviour needs to be corrected.
Providing information on the developmental abilities of a child at specific ages or stages helps them understand what’s normal, what’s expected, and what’s not. My husband had to learn that an infant who wakes up throughout the night wanting to be nursed is not misbehaving. Yet, a teen who stays up all night texting friends when there’s school the next day is misbehaving.
Joint attention and participation can be a struggle for autistic parents. Neurotypical children want their parents to notice them and play with them. Yet, many autistic parents have their own interests that take up a great deal of time. They may struggle to feign interest in something they don’t care about even if their children do. It helps to consider if the children can share in the parent’s interest and when short blocks of time can be scheduled into the autistic parent’s routine to engage with each child.
“Mindblindness” (the inability to assess or identify the thoughts and feelings of others) results in a lack of understanding of the child’s needs and an inability to work out the child’s intent. Many autistic parents don’t easily perceive intent through facial expressions and tone of voice, so they rely on words. Yet neurotypicals rely on nonverbal communication. Constant miscommunications strain the parent-child relationship, making it difficult for an autistic parent to attend to the child’s non-material needs. This brings me to communication.
Chatting, joking and giving empathetic responses are a struggle for many on the autistic spectrum. They know what they’re thinking. They don’t know what their neurotypical child is thinking, and they’re usually not clear that the child has different thoughts from their own. This, combined with a very literal interpretation of words, means that communicating is crazymaking. In our family, we use conversation cards to help mimic natural conversation.
Imagination is so important in parenting, not just because children love to play pretend, but also because it is imagination that helps parents get into their child’s world, see possibilities for the future, and identify consequences. If something happens, my husband can logically think through why and can take steps to prevent a negative occurrence in the future. However, if he doesn’t have any actual experience, he isn’t able to make predictions. So, in those situations, he leans on rules.
Flexibility can be difficult for an autistic parent who doesn’t like to break the routine. Yet with children, things change in a split second, and parents have to be flexible and prepared to react. Children have growth spurts, get sick, make mistakes, spill milk, scream with laughter, use poor judgment, want attention and more. While autistic parents can work schedule changes into their routine, what happens when things go wrong? Daily hurdles like a child dropping the contents of his or her backpack on the way out the door are part of parenting, yet for an autistic parent this scenario can be their undoing.
It’s helpful to have a good sense of humour and lots of forgiveness. It’s also good to help autistic parents understand that challenges are part of normal life. Sensory input can result in sensory overload for many autistic parents. Loud sounds, wet clothes, a sudden burst of cold air, the flip of a light switch, and even certain foods can feel like a physical assault for them. A quiet, calm, low lit room can be a safe haven, helping to prevent meltdowns.
Social engagements and childhood friendships may not be important to an autistic parent. They may wonder why a child should attend a birthday party or have friends over for a playdate. And if they do host these events, they may find them stressful and confusing. Socializing is critical to cognitive development and emotional well-being, and autistic parents can come to understand this.
Executive function involves planning, staying organized, sequencing information and self-regulating emotions. These qualities help a parent make on-the-spot decisions and remain calm. Many autistic parents struggle with executive function. They may need prompts, reminders, schedules and alone time to help them cope with life’s logistics. The nice part is once they know the order of importance, autistic parents can often be relied upon to keep things running smoothly.
Solitude is generally a very real need for autistic people, but children need lots of care and attention. What to do? Neurotypical parents can make a list of all the responsibilities related to caring for the child and ask the autistic parent which ones he or she is willing to do. Many thrive on fairness and when they see all that is involved in caring for a child, they’ll be more willing to share the load. Just remember that they can’t have their quiet time completely taken away.
13 success strategies
In the end, collaboration between the neurotypical and autistic parent can make parenting success possible! Here are a few strategies to try:
- Acknowledge each other’s weaknesses and admit to them without put downs, blaming or resentment.
- Rely on each other’s strengths. One might be better at finances, while another is better at entertaining guests.
- Keep a master family calendar so everyone knows what’s coming. This helps the entire family, and especially the autistic parent, prepare in advance for social obligations, breaks in routine, recitals and more.
- Make family rules so everyone knows what’s expected.
- Make a chore chart to distribute chores fairly.
- Introduce humour, playfulness and connection into daily life through intentional communication.
- Commit to family rituals like weekly family devotions, Sunday church service, bedtime routines and daily prayer.
- Establish family fun nights to build happy memories and prevent too much solitude.
- Set up a monthly schedule for the autistic parent to spend time with each child. Even ten minutes of reading a book, tossing a ball, going for a walk, colouring, or making a dessert can help the autistic parent support the child’s need to connect and feel loved.
- Find a mentor, coach or youth pastor to offer support and encouragement to the child.
- Consider family therapy or individual child therapy to help the child understand the limitations of the autistic parent.
- Develop a village of friends and family who accept all family members and can offer nonjudgmental advice, assistance and camaraderie.
- Take advantage of childcare to take a break and create time for self-care.
Co-parenting between a neurotypical and autistic parent is hard, but not impossible. And having an autistic parent can help a child empathize with people with disabilities. Cheers to the efforts on all sides.
© 2020 Nicole Mar. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox