This post is one that’s been on my mind for a while now and it got long.
I tweeted a short thread about this issue the other day, but I’d like to elaborate about it here also, especially since it’s April and articles about “dealing with” Autistic children are being shared with renewed ferver/intensity.
Gentle and respectful parenting was one of my first parenting-related “special interests” along with pregnancy and birth issues. I did a great deal of research and came to the conclusion that being gentle/respectful would be the best and most effective way to parent small humans.
I was involved in the online gentle parenting community for many years and during that time I was quite outspoken about the need for parents to seek out parenting tools that respect and work with their children’s unique needs and strengths.
Since learning I’m Autistic, I’ve primarily interacted with the actually Autistic community where most Autistic parents I’ve met (both online and in person) seem to tend towards respectful parenting styles for all of our children.
Thus, it is with great dismay that I’ve recently come to realize the fact that, even within gentle parenting circles, it is still considered controversial to suggest someone parent their Autistic child(ren) gently, with respect and kindness.
The mere suggestion that it’s important to accept one’s Autistic child(ren) is often met with resistance in that community.
The above concept is so very basic that it always shocks me when I meet parents who don’t believe that any children deserve respect and kindness.
And yet, practices such as spanking and shaming are still all too common, even when parents have allistic (non-Autistic) children.
Understanding, as I see it, is pretty much the opposite of assuming. It’s very common in our society for parents to assume the worst of their children, especially when children are very young, neurodivergent, and/or aren’t verbal.
Children are small people and there’s always a reason why they do the things they do. Babies are quite self-aware from birth and will let their parents know when they need things, if they’re listened to consistently. I saw it personally with every single one of my babies: both my allistic babies and my Autistic babies.
I also saw this with my friends’ and acquaintances’ babies. My sample group is quite large because we’ve moved around a fair amount and I was a birthworker for many years, which means that I’ve met and worked with many, many new parents as an expert.
Babies are non-verbal and yet communicate their needs – clearly enough so that I could understand them even! Why shouldn’t the same respect, the same attention to needs and desires, be granted to older non-verbal children and adults?
Over the years I have largely surrounded myself with gentle parents whose parenting philosophies lined up fairly well with my own, more or less. I don’t want to be around parents who ignore their child’s needs and deliberately hit their child when they think (assume) that they’re being “defiant.”
Note: I was frequently and incorrectly assumed to be acting defiantly as a child.
Within gentle parenting groups, it’s largely expected that parents need to be aware of normal childhood development and what behaviors are age-appropriate.
For example, let’s say that a toddler takes longer to respond than their parents might like, but at their age, it’s more likely to be a slower processing speed than outright defiance. Punishing a child for an inability to respond quickly isn’t going to teach them to respond more quickly next time. It’s going to more likely result in a fearful broken child who has learned that their parents are fine with hurting them for being somehow inadequate.
Gentle parents largely reject the practice of hurting their children – especially for age-expected behaviors, favoring instead a gentler approach that takes more time and patience.
Unfortunately, even within the gentle parenting groups, many otherwise gentle parents think there should be a quick and easy answer when it comes to parenting their Autistic (or otherwise neurodivergent) children. This, of course, completely ignores the fact that Autistic children need and deserve gentle, respectful parenting just as much as allistic children do.
The idea that there should be a quick and easy parenting answer also ignores the fact that children aren’t supposed to be convenient for the parents.
Parenting is rarely (if ever) convenient, regardless of the child’s neurology.
And children all develop at their own rates, regardless of neurology.
Autistic children grow up in their own time and on their own curve. Even the most neurotypical of toddlers can’t be forced to mature before they’re ready.
You can’t punish or bribe someone into having more self-control or gaining other skills that they aren’t developmentally ready for.
The above principle is the same for all children, regardless of their neurology.
Yes, parents will need different tools for different children, different neurologies, different needs, different situations, etc. That’s part of what makes gentle/respectful parenting challenging: There are no quick fix solutions across the board.
No two children are the same. No two families are the same.
But when the foundation of parenting lies in seeking to better respect and understand the child(ren) and family in question, then those differing needs can be accepted and worked with in gently effective ways.
Parenting is hard. It’s not going to be easy, no matter what the circumstances.
However, the acts of accepting, respecting, and being kind to one’s child can often make parenting easier. This is true even when parenting your specific child ends up being a totally different experience than you’d imagined it might be ahead of time.
Gentle/Respectful Parenting Resources and articles:
Parenting Autistic Children With Love and Acceptance – excellent website!
Respectfully Connected – another excellent website!
Autism Discussion Page – (allistic-run FB page, but seeks to understand and share how Autistic children see the world)
Teaching Your Autistic Child: The Neurodiversity Way – Many ideas for how to respectfully teach your Autistic child vital skills
Autism, Behavior, and the Impact of Kindness by Judy Endow
Is My Baby or Toddler Autistic? – Explanations behind common behaviors of young Autistic children. Important things to notice and consider.