Encouraging and developing self-advocacy in our children and why the language we use matters

Image shows the sea in the background, with a close up seagull to the right with its beak wide open, below the beak and centred on the image white text reads 'How to talk so kids will learn how to speak up for themselves'

I really, really, really, don’t like the term ‘special needs’. I don’t particularly like the term ‘special educational needs’ much either, and can get a bit twitchy when the acronyms are used as prefixes, for example ‘SN child’ or ‘SEN child’. Urgh, it’s the ‘special’ bit I think. Scotland uses ‘additional support needs’ which grates less, and additional feels more neutral than special, but ASN is phonetically a bit too close to the old ESN acronym for ‘educationally sub-normal’, which was particularly awful.

‘Special needs’ is often used as a way to avoid using the words disabled and disability when describing, err, disabled children. Referring to adults as having, or being (WTF), ‘special needs’ seems reserved for those with learning/intellectual disabilities, when it’s typically used to pity and infantilise. The way that ‘special’ has become used as a way to insult and demean suggests to me it’s time for a re-think.

I’m aware that ‘special needs’ and ‘special educational needs’ are also used to describe children who aren’t disabled. It’s probably helpful to have an umbrella term for both transient and enduring support needs, particularly in schools. I think my preference would simply be ‘additional needs’ and/or ‘additional educational needs’. Both seem more accurate and less loaded and possibly harder to corrupt into terms of abuse. Maybe.

But, what bothers me most is that the language we use to describe disabled children, and to explain disability and support to disabled children, can make developing self-awareness and self-advocacy harder. I know that not all disabled children will be able to advocate for themselves, but for those that will, or those who might, I have some suggestions:

Use words that they’ll use as adults

Think about the words that adult services and adult self-advocates use. My son was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome when he was 6 years old, but we’ve interchangeably used Aspergers, autism, autistic and autism spectrum/autistic spectrum. I’d like to say this was a brilliant bit of forward-thinking, but it wasn’t, it was purely accidental and largely resulted from my own dithering around the person-first language I’d been trained in and the identity-first language that felt more personal and powerful. Alongside using the word disabled, and other terms that are specific to what disables him, he’s developed a broad and varied vocabulary, not just to choose for himself, but so that he isn’t stymied when he encounters someone who uses different terms.

My hope is that as he approaches adulthood he is reasonably well-equipped to engage with both professionals/service providers and with other autistic and disabled advocates and activists. This would be so much harder if he’d only heard us describe him as ‘being special’, having ‘special needs’ or if, like some parents, we’d never even told him his diagnosis.

Don’t minimise or rely on cutesy words

Words like autism and disability continue to scare some parents. It’s understandable given that the discourse of child development uses words and phrases like ‘risk’ and ‘red flag’ (and delay, disorder and failure) to describe and highlight anomalies (I view anomalies as a neutral term, different not less and all that). Parents, teachers and clinicians often skirt around language, avoiding those apparently scary words, and try to use what’s seen as more child-friendly language to describe children. For example (and this is not exhaustive!):

Aspie

Autie

Fidgety

Shy

Special

Highly sensitive

Indigo child

Twice exceptional

Sensitive

Quirky

Different

Fussy

Spectrummy

Wriggly

Slow

It’s not that we should never use these words, I just think they shouldn’t be the only words we use. It’s a bit like teaching children anatomical terms for their bodies, we need to provide children with the correct terms to describe themselves as well as their bodies.

(Also, try to avoid using words which suggest naughtiness or nastiness, even if you think they can’t hear or understand you)

Model advocacy

Try not to hide what you do to advocate for your child from your child. As far as is possible, involve and explain what you are doing and why, especially as your child gets older. Whether it’s sending an email to school, making an application for extra support, asking for help, or filling in a disability benefit claim, talk about it and involve your child, as one day they might or will need to do these things for themselves. Involving and engaging children in their support and reviews not only reminds professionals that there’s a real child involved, it also gives our children a chance to be a part of the process and learn new and useful skills.

If you are autistic/disabled yourself, or have any support needs, talk to your child about it. I am guilty of unintentionally hiding how hard some things are for me, but I’m trying to be more open and honest about what supports I’ve had that have helped me live, work and study better.

Encourage challenge

Don’t be a doormat, show your child that you will stand up for yours and theirs and other peoples rights. If they spot an injustice help them address it, write an email together or go and complain. Discuss what’s going on in the world and explore the sorts of things ordinary people have done and can do to make a difference.

Don’t force compliance

This is probably my biggest worry with many of the interventions used for autistic children. Whether it’s ABA or social stories or emotional literacy, or whatever school and professionals are offering, we need to check and double check that our children aren’t being taught or conditioned to ignore their own discomfort. Teaching and supporting self-advocacy and autonomy, and especially bodily autonomy, is vital. For more on autonomy, see this post.

Final words

The words we use to describe our children become the words they use to describe themselves. These words and the language we give our children to describe themselves matter. Hopefully, our children will be adults for far longer than they will have been children, so getting the foundations right, giving our children words and language and skills which empower them, which make them feel good about themselves, perhaps which enable them to find their community, and which help them self-advocate, matters.

PDA & Parenting

A critical-insider perspective on PDA and parenting

This post is based on a presentation I gave at the PARC event ‘Critical Perspectives on Pathological Demand Avoidance’ on Tuesday 15 May 2018. This is very much a walkthrough of the presentation, using a combination of material from the slides, in text and image form, and supplementary narrative where needed.

Please note that this is a long post, but there is a lot to say! A summary will shortly be available on the PARC website.

Both me and my son believe we would meet the criteria for PDA, yet we do not identify as PDAers. I recognise us both in accounts by and about PDAers, in programmes like ‘Born Naughty’, or as described on social media by parents and PDAers themselves, but we would both describe ourselves as ‘just’ autistic. I hope to write about my own ‘demand avoidance’ in a future post. I will not be describing in any detail how my son is PDAish because that is his story to tell, but there are times when I cannot tell my story without reference to him, and he has consented to this. I understand why parents need to talk about their children, because I know how isolating our situations can be, and how we need to learn from each other to be the best parents we can be. I would just urge caution, use anonymous accounts, delete your posting histories, use pseudonyms wherever possible.

Why am I talking about PDA parenting?

I have spent around 10 years hanging out and sharing ideas and support in online forums, with a particular interest in children and young people who exhibit demand avoidant, aggressive and violent behaviours, and I have around 10 years’ experience using PDA strategies and techniques as a parent.

I have over 20 years’ experience supporting often vulnerable adults, including 18 years’ probation work with adults in the criminal justice system, many of whom were almost certainly undiagnosed autistics, including those with a PDA-type profile. Very few had formal diagnoses. As a result, I have considerable experience supporting a wide variety of people who exhibit what is often called ‘challenging behaviour’.

I also have a personal and academic interest in the discourse of ‘mother-blame’ and I have noticed how mothers of PDA-type children often experience considerable judgement and intrusion due to poor understanding of autism by professionals.

I recognise PDA as a ‘profile of autism’ (I will come back to ‘profiles’ later) and I am concerned that critique of PDA could harm PDAers and parents of PDAers, by supporting discourses centred on behavioural problems, bad parenting and mother-blame.

My aim for the presentation was to explore and ponder the tensions between my experience and observations, including the usefulness of PDA for me as a parent, and the clinical and academic construct of PDA. In essence, I am seeking to balance my pragmatic use of PDA as a signpost and shorthand for me as a parent, with my ideological and theoretical concerns about PDA for me as a fledgling academic.

Aut-o-biography

  • My son was diagnosed age 6 under ICD-10 with Asperger’s Syndrome.
  • I was diagnosed age 46 under DSM5 with Autism Spectrum Disorder, having received a ‘non-clinical diagnosis’ the year before to evidence my need for workplace adjustments.
  • I had suspected for both of us since he was 2, when, at his 2 year check the health visitor recommended I read Simon Baron-Cohen’s ‘The Essential Difference’ (lol).
  • He was initially referred for an SEN assessment at 3, for an Educational Psychologist assessment at 4 and then for autism assessment at 5, largely as a result of escalating behaviour that ‘looked like’ bad parenting.

We both have a similar ‘profile’:

  • Sensory problems
  • Masking/camouflaging
  • Anxiety
  • Demand avoidance…

My cognitive dissonance

PDA was not well known when my son was younger and Newson’s original PDA criteria included ‘passive early history’ and ’language delay’ which did not appear to ‘fit’ my son.

Despite my son exhibiting all other PDA characteristics, this stopped me describing him as having PDA, yet:

  • He presented with extreme demand avoidance and a PDA-type ‘behaviour profile’.
  • PDA techniques were highly effective.
  • My main support network was other parents of PDA-type children.

PDA is often confusingly described as both different to autism and as an ASD. As I consider autism and ASD to be synonymous, this does not make sense to me.

In 2016 Phil Christie (at the National Autistic Society’s Professionals Conference) said that the above 2 criteria (passive early history and language delay) were no longer considered essential criteria, and this got me thinking…

Can someone meet both a PDA and an AS profile of autism?

If I was to describe my son, or even myself using clinical, diagnostic terms, it might look something like this:

But, now look at the next 2 tables:

That is the same child (or the same adult) showing a perfect combination of 2 supposedly discrete autism profiles.

My experience and observations indicate that a more obviously- (stereotypically-) presenting Asperger-profile autistic child is likely to be diagnosed easier and quicker than a less obviously- (stereotypically-) presenting PDA-profile autistic child. My son was referred before his more PDA-profile type observable behaviours became more pronounced than his Asperger-profile type observable behaviours. This meant that identifying my son’s autism was fairly straightforward as he appeared to present with a textbook Asperger-profile of autism. We were lucky, and had we delayed, diagnosis might not have been so easy…

What is a typical path to a PDA diagnosis?

Sense of difference about the child:

  • Often an early suspicion of developmental delays but nothing significant.
  • Often skirting along fringes of typical development.

Escalating ‘behaviour problems’:

  • Which can look like ‘bad parenting’.
  • Which are often not consistent across home, school and other settings.

Usual parenting strategies don’t work:

  • Parents have often worked through a series of parenting guides and often attended parenting classes.
  • Parents might have got stuck in a vicious cycle of escalating ‘behaviour’ and sanctions/consequences.

Ask for help:

  • First line help often means more parenting classes and advice to strictly follow reward/punishment methods.
  • When the suggested strategies and approach does not work, parents are blamed for not being consistent, or not doing it properly.

Mother blame:

  • Parent blaming is almost always targeted at mums (for a range of often contradictory reasons see my previous blog post on the irony of parent-blaming).
  • Attachment theory is often used incorrectly to further lay blame on mums, often resulting in ‘family therapy’ (often run by underqualified and inexperienced staff using poorly evidenced and inappropriate techniques).

Autism assessment:

  • Along the way it seems not uncommon for the family to encounter a ‘renegade’ professional who sees something in the child that looks like autism even though nobody else can see it, and this results in a referral for assessment.
  • Initial autism assessment often indicates a failure to meet threshold and a conclusion of ‘autistic traits’ or ‘social and behavioural difficulties’ or non-specified ‘anxiety’.

Stumble on PDA:

  • By this stage parents (usually mums) have started researching and come across descriptions of PDA.
  • Parents (usually mums) voraciously read about PDA and start to engage with other PDA parents.

Find support in PDA community:

  • Parents (usually mums) find others like them and start to learn new, better, and considerably less stressful and anxiety-provoking ways to support their children.
  • Parents start to feel heard and validated, realising that they might have been right all along, and that they are probably not bad parents.

Find sympathetic clinician who can recognise ‘subtleties’:

  • Through recommendations, children are often taken for private assessments with clinical diagnostic providers who are known to be able to see beyond stereotypes and to see the often more subtle PDA presentation of autism.
  • This does mean parents are ‘diagnosis shopping’, it is inevitable that clinical expertise will vary and many clinicians across all disciplines have specialist areas of interest, for example, the highly reputable Lorna Wing Centre is often recommended for assessment of girls and women.

What are ‘PDA strategies/interventions?

PDA adjustments are built around reducing demands and reducing the stress and anxiety which results in ‘demand avoidance’, and includes things like:

  • Framing demands carefully
  • Using indirect demands
  • Explaining reasoning
  • Collaboration
  • Negotiation
  • Using humour and novelty
  • Supporting sensory needs
  • Choosing ‘battles’ carefully
  • Allowing initiative
  • Offering choices

But PDA-style parenting and support is about more than ‘behaviour management’…

What does good PDA-style parenting and support look like?

Reducing anxiety:

  • Ending the vicious cycle of increasing demands and increasing anxiety.

Adjusting expectations and environment:

  • Ensuring sensory and other needs are met.

Teach and model problem-solving skills:

  • Equipping and supporting children with thinking and communicating skills.

Focus on flexible and adaptable skills that will last a lifetime:

  • Reducing or removing time spent on learning transient skills.

Support autonomy and self-advocacy:

  • Encouraging children to be assertive and empowered.

It is my view that this set of aims should be the foundation for any autistic child, or indeed for all children.

How did PDA suddenly get so popular?

Online resources and forums:

  • Including specialist (PDA Contact Group and The PDA Resource) and non-specialist (Facebook groups, Netmums and Mumsnet).
  • Around 2010ish PDA became much more widely talked about and this had a snowball effect.

Backlash against dominant interventions:

  • Around 10 years ago the main interventions being discussed among parents of younger autistic/possibly autistic children were ABA, TEACHH (including via the NAS Early Bird training) and Bio-medical (eg Tinsley House and Sunderland Protocol).
  • Many parents of PDA-type children tried these, to varying degrees, and found them ineffective, and often found they made things worse, so parents started to look for other ways for their seemingly ‘non-compliant’ autistic/possibly autistic children.
  • Many parents, me included, resisted the normalisation and cure narratives which dominated much of the autism parenting world, and wanted to find ways to support our children with more flexibility.

Increased autism ‘awareness’:

  • The rise of compulsory autism training across the teaching, clinical and broader public sector contributed to many professionals thinking they understood autism.
  • This training was (and indeed often still is) based on the idea of autistic people as ‘other’ (such courses are rife with ‘they do this’ and ‘they do that’), and is almost always based on a medical, deficit model of autism, often, in my view, resulting in more rigid stereotypes and less flexible thinking about autism among those who attend…
  • Such training often provides a narrow, limited and limiting toolkit of strategies and interventions, and this can hinder the flexibility and creativity of approach needed by many PDA-type children (and other autistic children too).

But was PDA really a new profile?

Back to the 1940s

I was somewhat surprised when I finally read Uta Frith’s 1991 translation of Hans Asperger’s 1944 paper, and that 3 out of 4 of the case studies he presents in some detail, described behaviours that now might be seen as evidence of PDA-type autism.

These are the extracts I used in the presentation, and there is more in a similar vein, but I urge you to read the case studies for yourself and see what you think:

… the conduct disorders were particularly gross when demands were made on him … when one tried to give him something to do or to teach something … it required great skill to make him join some PE or work even for a short while … it was particularly in these situations that he would start jumping, hitting, climbing … or some stereotyped sing-song.” (Fritz V.)

“… he was repeating the second year because he had failed in all the subjects. The teachers believed that he ‘could if only he wanted to’ … he made surprisingly clever remarks of a maturity way beyond his age … he often refused to co-operate, sometimes using bad language … ‘this is far too stupid for me’ … little things drove him to senseless fury … extremely sensitive to teasing … an inveterate liar … told long fantastic stories* …” (Harro L.)

“… reported to have been a very difficult toddler … unable to cope with the ordinary demands of everyday life … he could be very naughty and would not do as he was told … it was impossible to go to a park with him, as he would instantly get embroiled in fighting … he liked to tell fantastic stories … he had a strong tendency to argue with everybody and to reprimand them … he made life hard for himself by his awkwardness and endless hesitations.” (Ernst K.)

Fast forward to the 1980s

In Lorna Wing’s 1981 paper she describes ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ which was very much based on then contemporary understanding of autism and Asperger’s case studies, but she removed 2 interesting elements from Asperger’s analysis:

  • The possibility for imaginative play.
  • The ability to be original and creative.

In Uta Frith’s 1991 footnotes to Asperger’s paper she too seemed to struggle with some of Asperger’s observations:

  • Sceptical of ‘fantastic stories’ and imaginative thinking.
  • ‘… the claim that autistic children have a special gift for art appreciation is very surprising’.
  • ‘… little evidence that autistic children have the same sort of fantasy life as normally developing children’.

Elizabeth Newson, building on her 1970s/80s clinical work, and referred to in her 2003 paper, defined PDA as distinct from ‘classic autism’ and ‘Asperger Syndrome’ noting:

  • An equal sex ratio.
  • Demand avoidance using social manipulation as a key criteria.

What PDA did

  • PDA provided an easy shorthand to help us help our children.
  • Especially when the standard interventions did not work.
  • It gave us ‘permission’ to go off-piste with strategies and interventions.
  • It legitimised what we often already knew worked for our children.
  • It enabled the breaking of cycles of escalating behavioural interventions
  • Improving the lives of many children and families.
  • It helped us find peer support.
  • The nature of our children’s ‘behaviour’ can leave us extremely isolated.
  • It enabled autistic children who did not fit stereotypes to get an autism diagnosis.

Do we need a PDA profile of autism?

  • Autism profiles do not stand up to empirical testing.
  • Profiles can perpetuate stereotypes.
  • Profiles can be divisive.
  • Profiles can cause confusion.
  • But, profiles can also be useful:
    • To highlight under-represented groups eg girls and women.
    • To reach under-represented groups.
    • To challenge narrow views of autism.
    • They can support and affirm identity.

Why PDA matters to PDAers/PDA parents

Validation:

  • PDA recognition often follows years of failing to secure an autism diagnosis.

Identity:

  • PDAers report feeling different to other autistic people.

Representation:

  • PDA experience under-represented/marginalised in autism literature/resources.

Isolation:

  • PDAers/PDA parents can feel alienated from autism/autistic community.

Investment:

  • PDAers/PDA parents have an emotional (and financial?) investment in PDA.

So, what’s my problem with PDA then?

The name is awful:

  • Pathological can mean disease-state, extreme or compulsive/obsessive and, as well as the negative connotations and potential for stigma, I am just not sure how such a narrowly-defined term reflects the complexity and nuance of PDA-type autistic people.

It cannot be simultaneously an autism and a not-autism:

  • Over and over and over again I keep seeing PDA being presented as an autism spectrum disorder but ‘not like normal autism’ and I want to shout, ‘THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS NORMAL AUTISM’.
  • PDA is presented as distinct from ‘Classic Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome’ when we already have research that says these are not distinct conditions.
  • On a theoretical level the reliance on Newson’s ASD tryptic (CA – PDA – AS) presents a false dichotomy for PDA, ie that it is different to CA/AS, and we now know that the ASD sub-types are not stable categories.

Perpetuates stereotyped/outdated notion of non-PDA autism:

  • PDA literature often describes ‘normal autistics’ as having less empathy, being less creative, less imaginative and more rigid, more restrictive and more serious and literal than PDAers.
  • The problem is that our understanding of autism has moved on considerably since Newson first theorised PDA, and we now recognise how empathic, creative, imaginative and social autistics across the spectrum can be.

No empirical evidence that PDA ‘demand avoidance’ is different from autistic ‘demand avoidance’ or non-autistic ‘demand avoidance’:

  • Every single feature, trait, sign, symptom, whatever we call it, of autism, is present across the entire human population.
  • Autism ‘traits’ and PDA ‘traits’ are fundamentally human traits. Just as no feature of autism is unique to autistic people, I do not believe that demand avoidance is unique to PDAers.

PDA strategies/interventions are not only useful to PDAers:

  • It is often suggested that PDAers are a distinct group because ‘normal autism strategies and interventions’ don’t work, and again I want to shout, ‘BUT THEY DON’T WORK FOR MOST OTHER AUTISTIC PEOPLE EITHER’.
  • PDA strategies are not unique to PDA, they are built on therapeutic methods which are well established and have broad application. We need to move away from this exclusive and silo thinking.

Inadequate recognition of fluctuating ‘demand avoidance’:

  • I have heard some PDA supporters suggest that if a child (adult) is not demand avoidant all of the time it cannot be PDA.
  • I would suggest that if a child is so anxious that they are demand avoidant all of the time, something seriously needs to change as that child is not being properly supported to reduce their anxiety.

The acceptance of ‘demand avoidance’ (and therefore high levels of anxiety) as a permanent state:

  • Gillberg’s 2015 Faroe Islands study indicates that demand avoidance reduces as children mature.
  • Based on my experience I would suggest that as children develop better communication skills, more self-awareness and improved self-regulation, that they find alternative (more socially acceptable?) ways to express their non-compliance. It is not that the instinctive fear response to perceived and actual demands is fully removed, more that we become more able to self-advocate as we develop more skills.

Whataboutery

If PDA is a distinct profile because of the “extreme” nature of response to anxiety, what about other “extreme” anxiety responses?

  • Selective mutism
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Substance misuse

Would we want:

  • Pathological Selective Mutism Autism Spectrum Disorder?
  • Pathological Eating Disorder Autism Spectrum Disorder?
  • Pathological Self-harming Autism Spectrum Disorder?
  • Pathological Substance-misusing Autism Spectrum Disorder?

What about compliance?

  • Is “extreme” compliance perhaps more pathological and more harmful to autistic children and adults than “extreme” demand avoidance?

I would argue that compliance is one of the greatest risks to autistic children and adults. The ability to say, express or indicate discomfort, displeasure or distress, or even just not wanting to do something for any or no reason at all, is a vital skill.

Conclusion

The dismissal of some of Asperger’s observations perpetuated a narrow view of autism:

  • Excluding more PDAish, social and creative autistics.

Effect of egos and competition on diagnostic categorisation:

  • If Newson had been part of the in-crowd of autism researchers could the PDA-type characteristics of autism have been incorporated into the autism spectrum sooner?
  • Was Newson ahead of her time in recognising, like Asperger before her, that autistic people could be creative and imaginative and that not all autistics crave routine and sameness?

Impact of increased ‘awareness’, stereotypes and prescriptive interventions on non-compliant autistics:

  • It has been suggested that autistics did better before the rise of early interventions (see Michelle Dawson for example), perhaps when parents and teaching staff weren’t restrained by prescriptive autistic training models and packages (from intense ABA to social stories and emotional literacy teaching) and had to be child-focused, creative and experimental.

Dimensional nature of demand avoidance is akin to other ‘extreme’ anxiety responses:

  • Should we actually be talking about ‘extreme’ anxiety?
  • Is demand avoidance just one of many anxiety responses?

The PDA profile of autism, like other profiles and attempts to highlight under-represented groups (eg BAME/women and girls), has some use in the short-term to raise awareness and inform clinicians:

  • Asperger’s Syndrome served a purpose in increasing understanding of the breadth of the autism spectrum, and enabled previously unrecognized autistics to be recognised as autistic, but proved to be an unstable categorisation, resulting in it being absorbed in the broader autism/ASD category.
  • It is my hope that in time the PDA-profile and its criteria will be similarly absorbed and that we will develop better ways of describing the nuance of the different and varying (across people, time and culture) presentations of autism.

PDA techniques and interventions should be more widely used across the autism population to support autonomy and self-advocacy:

  • Done well, the PDA approach supports children to become excellent negotiators, collaborators and activists. That has to be a good thing!

I finished my presentation by asking how do we build bridges across the spectrum?

Open letter to playwright Mike Heath and Kibo Productions

Please follow the link below, read, share and sign up.

“Many people will be surprised to learn that autistic mothers exist at all. But here we are: loving, affectionate, deeply engaged and often working and/or serving our communities alongside our parenting responsibilities. It is probably too ordinary to merit a dramatic presentation, and in fact too similar to the experiences of neurotypical mothers to merit any attention at all. That is not to deny that autistic mothers face multiple challenges in their everyday lives, but those stories are theirs to tell. Autism is a very broad spectrum indeed (or even a constellation), representing millions of unique experiences. The blanket assumption that we struggle to love is a lazy, outdated cliché.”

Read the rest: autisticmotherhood.co.uk/

There is also an autistic review of the play here: The Big Things (a play about female autism… or is it?)

And this wonderful piece of writing by Sonia Boué: #AutisticMotherhood misrepresented

From ‘autism mom’ to autistic mother

image shows a wooden bridge across a stream in a woodland setting, with ‘from ‘autism mom’ to autistic mother’ in white text

‘Autism mom’ is a term often used by, and to describe, non-autistic mothers of autistic children. It’s a sort of identity, signifying her interest in and connection to autism. ‘Autism moms’ wear jigsaw piece embellished slogans, share memes about their ‘special children’, light it up blue and support Autism Speaks. They want to solve the puzzle of autism and unlock their children from their autistic prisons.

‘Autism moms’ are often passionate about getting the best treatments for their autistic children and keen to measure and compare progress. They love their autistic children and want to cure them of their autism. They spend their savings and pension pots on expensive treatments, some fairly benign, others fairly harmful.

‘Autism moms’ talk of their despair, their fear and the horrors of their daily lives. They understand when fellow ‘autism moms’ murder their own autistic children, because they understand the despair and the the nightmare of autism parenting. They raise funds for research and rejoice at scientific discoveries which suggest a cause for autism, hopeful that cause might lead to cure and prevention.

‘Autism moms’ are often criticised by adult autistic activists for not properly understanding autism. When it is suggested that the path they tread is misguided or dangerous, ‘autism mom’ claims that her child is more severe or more different to the autistic adult, that she knows her child best and has their child’s best interests at heart.

‘Autism moms’ are also criticised for wanting to cure autism, for striving to take away an essential part of their children’s personhood. Autistic activists argue that autism is a neurological variant, not a disease or affliction, and that acceptance and accommodations are what’s needed, not treatments and cures. ‘Autism moms’ are derided for discussing the day to day challenges of parenting their autistic children and told to listen to and be guided by autistic adults.

*

My introduction to autism began as a (seemingly) non-autistic parent to an autistic child. I was never a full-on ‘autism mom’ as described by the gratuitous stereotype above, but I can relate to the sentiment. I shared the worst and the best of my son’s behaviour and development on social media (albeit anonymously). I rejoiced when he behaved more like, and showed signs of development in line with, his non-autistic peers. I read and read and read to find ways to help him develop his emotional and social skills. I tried to help him ‘fit in’ with his non-autistic peers and shuddered with embarrassment when he showed his autism in public.

I looked for the magic bullet to help him overcome the problems of his autism and be more like his typically developing peers. I wanted his life to be easier and happier.

Parents (almost always) want the best for their children, we certainly don’t want our children to struggle. From the moment they’re born our children are measured, weighed, charted and checked, their progress against developmental norms compared and recorded. As parents we watch for signs of the next steps, celebrating when they make good progress or are ahead of the curve, worrying when we see delays. We see our children among their peers and cannot help but compare. Our children will grow up into a world made for norms. We want to smooth the path. We worry more. We do more. The search for the elusive key becomes all consuming.

I understand why ‘autism moms’ wear themselves out trying to ‘fix’ their autistic children. I understand why they want to identify the causes of autism and prevent more hardships and heartbreak. Parenting an autistic child in a world built upon and for norms is not easy. Lack of understanding, poor educational options, constant battles for provision and support, balancing needs and resources within the family, it is hard and it often feels relentless.

*

As I meander through this new world, with my newfound autistic identity, I struggle at times to consolidate the different perspectives. On the one hand, I am a parent to a child who has had way more struggles than a child should, and I want to do everything in my power to ameliorate those struggles, whilst on the other hand I want to celebrate his (and my) differences, and glory in the wonder of our neurodivergence.

I listen when autistic adults offer advice to parents of autistic children. I read carefully when autistic adults write articles criticising ‘autism moms’ and their choices. I constantly compare what’s being discussed to my own parenting, wondering if I measure up, am I doing my son a disservice, am I good enough? After a lifetime of never fitting in, I can’t help but wonder where I fit. I still feel as if I have a foot in the warm shallow end of both ‘sides’.

The reality is that it wasn’t working out I’m autistic that influenced my parenting. It was much more that as I became more confident as a parent I became more able to do what my son needed. I no longer felt like I had to perform some idealised version of the ‘good mother’.

*

I started writing this post nearly 2 years ago and had planned it (rather grandiosely perhaps) as a way to try and bridge the gap between what sometimes feels like the warring factions of ‘autism moms’ and autistic activists. I really struggle when I read accounts by autistic adults who are not parents themselves (for example Temple Grandin’s ‘The Loving Push’ book) giving parenting advice to parents of autistic children. I’m not sure non-parents can ever really understand being a parent any more than non-autistics can ever really understand being autistic.

I also struggle when non-autistic parents of autistic children are told they just need to understand and listen to their child better, as if that’s the magic answer. My autism does not give me some special power to intuitively know how to parent and support other people’s autistic children. I didn’t have all the skills I needed to parent my own child so how can I know what’s best for another child, who is not part of my family?

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I know I am not alone as a parent trying to balance preparing my child for a life in a neurotypical-centric world whilst trying to preserve his right to be his own autonomous autistic self. It can be a tricky balance, and I often worry I’m missing something important. I do not agree with many ‘autism moms’ who see ‘normal’ and non-autistic as the ideal to aim and fight for. I do not see compliance with neurotypical expectations as desirable, in fact I see it as antithetical to self-advocacy.

If I can send one message to ‘autism mom’ it’s to encourage and prioritise your child’s autonomy over and above everything else, for this is what will help keep them safe in the future.

For more on autonomy, please read Jamie Knight’s article here:

Spoons and other metaphors: how I use my social care budget

The irony of parent-blaming

image shows a head and shoulders from behind, of a person wearing a hooded raincoat and large floppy knitted hat, with the text ‘The irony of parent-blaming’.

There is near universal agreement among autism academics that inadequate parenting does not cause autism, yet the legacy of psychoanalytic, parent-blaming theories of autism remains. The enormous popularity of theories like Kanner’s ‘refrigerator mothers’ and Bettelheim’s frankly bizarre Freudian analyses of motherhood, contributed to this longevity. Even now, with all we know, so often when faced with autistic behaviours, GPs, clinicians, teachers, friends and family seem to find reasons for visible behaviours that place the blame firmly on the parents.

The irony of all this parent-blaming is that there’s no consistency. From my own experience and having spent years interacting with 100s of parents online and in ‘real-life’, it’s clear that, for some people, all that matters is finding the ‘thing’ that the parents are doing ‘wrong’, even when the child is already diagnosed autistic.

My son is an only child so that has been suggested as a reason; but interestingly, my friend whose autistic son is one of 5 has been told it’s because he’s one of many.

I have heard mums told it is because they work, implying the child’s needs are neglected; and also because they don’t work and spend too much time with their child, implying indulgence.

Some are told they are too strict; and others too lax.

Perhaps it’s because both parents work; or perhaps it’s because neither parent works.

It could be that the parents expectations are too high; or too low, who knows?

Maybe it’s because the child doesn’t attend any extra-curricular activities; or maybe they spend too much time doing an activity they love.

It might even be because they never went to nursery; or was it because they were in childcare from an early age?

It’s probably because they’re the youngest, or the oldest, or in the middle.

For every single reason for blame given to a parent, I can bet that another parent has been given the opposite reason for blame.

None of these things cause autism.

But these messages do affect how people view autistic people, both children and adults. These messages suggest that the autism isn’t inherent, that it’s not an integral part of our being, instead suggesting that it’s damage inflicted upon us.

And that’s just nonsense.

Looking back and thinking forward

Parenting, hindsight and independence

Being the parent of an autistic child (or any child with additional needs) brings a whole load of extra challenges and expectations. I can’t speak for parents of those with the highest support needs, but as a ‘can almost pass for normal some of the time if the conditions are perfect’ autistic parent of a ‘can sometimes almost pass for normal if the conditions are perfect and he wants to’ autistic kid, it’s not as simple as intellectual ability plus verbal skills equals capable of independent living immediately upon reaching adulthood.

Despite the fact we know that autistic people often have ‘spiky profiles’*, ‘uneven development’ and ‘splinter skills’ there can be a lot of pressure to ‘support development’ and ‘encourage independence’. We often internalise the message that we need to be pushing our children to ‘keep up’, ‘catch up’ and ‘make progress’, and can be left feeling incompetent and inadequate when our children continue to need supports and adjustments (it’s even worse when other parents of autistic kids assume that because their offspring can do something yours should too).

Parenting forums and support groups for parents of autistic children are full of parents wanting to push their child’s development and meet typical milestones, desperate to make sure seemingly important developmental steps aren’t missed, keen to set their child on a trajectory towards independence. Once our kids hit their teens there can be a real sense of urgency to prepare them for being independent adults.

Independence is often heralded as the ‘optimal outcome’, but should it be? There is nothing inherently wrong with needing support or relying on other people to help. When wealthy, successful people employ cleaners and gardeners and cooks and drivers it’s seen as a status symbol, yet when disabled people (who might also be wealthy and successful, but far too often are not) employ others to meet daily needs it’s seen as dependence which us parents are led to view as a ‘Very Bad Thing’.

Personally, I think the teen years are tough enough for all kids, so my goal is to make them as easy as possible. Yes, we do need to keep a little corner of an eye on the future, but we also need to relax a bit and go with the ebb and flow as our kids grow up. Hindsight can show us where we laid good foundations in previous years and give us clues about where we need to shore them up for the future.

If parenting is about supporting and preparing our children for the future, whatever that future might be, every now and then it’s worth looking back to see what’s worked (and what hasn’t) and think forward to what might be useful for the future. In my experience, it always helps to hear from parents of similar children who are a few years ahead to help prepare for transitions and potential challenges.

My top 5 tips for parents of younger autistic children to make the teen years easier:

Don’t waste effort on transient skills

If your child doesn’t like playing in the playground or has unusual taste in toys and books, that’s ok. Don’t spend hours and hours encouraging, cajoling or forcing them to do things you think they should be doing so they can ‘fit in’ – there’s a good chance that by the time you’ve ‘succeeded’ their peers will have moved on to something else. It is far more useful for the future to support your child to be confident and happy doing what they enjoy. And it’s quite possible that what was an unusual interest at 7 becomes the foundation of a successful career by 21.

Future proof any routines

One thing I’m sure most parents of autistic kids know is that you can never tell which routines will be resisted, which will be open to change and which ones will become the immovable bedrocks of your child’s life, so it is really worth thinking ahead when setting up and agreeing routines. One of our rigid routines is a daily bath before bed, and now we are in the teen years, I am so glad we kept this routine! Whilst a younger child might accept a routine of bathing or showering on Wednesdays and Sundays, teenagers and young adults will almost certainly need a daily bath or shower.

Don’t force your kid to follow the crowd

I remember when my son was younger, and (seemingly) everyone telling me he would eat better/play better/learn better once he went to nursery/school/clubs. Back then the idea that his life (and ours too if I’m honest) would be easier if he copied his peers and adapted to ‘fit in’ was tempting. But it never happened. Now I’m proud of his stubbornness and immunity to peer pressure. He has found a group of friends where he is valued without having to perform or mask, and I’m hopeful that this will be a protective factor in the future.

Support self-regulation

Something I’ve learned in my work with offending adults is that if children and young people are controlled and shaped through external controls (eg rewards, consequences and punishments) they can fail to develop their own internal controls. I’ve met too many young adults who know their behaviours are destructive but they don’t know how to stop, and it’s a lot harder helping adults learn these skills than the child you have 24/7. We need our children to recognise their own cues (hunger, thirst, tiredness, stress) and learn how to respond to them. We need to help our children develop their own personal problem-solving toolkits. We must empower our children to self-regulate their own lives as much as they can. Self-awareness is vital for our children to become self-advocates.

Respect and encourage bodily autonomy

Don’t force unwanted tickles, hugs, kisses and physical contact onto your children. If they don’t like it you need to stop. Not only might it be causing sensory distress, but it sends a dreadful message about consent. We know that autistic children, teens and adults are more vulnerable to bullying, abuse and exploitation and we must equip them with the ability and confidence to say “No”. We must not teach them to ‘get used to’, ignore or override their discomfort.

If you have any more tips, please leave a comment. I would especially like to hear from autistic young adults and parents of autistic older teens and young adults who might have some tips for me and other parents of teenagers.

*apologies for overuse of ‘quote marks’, they mostly indicate my use of terms that I am not overly keen on but which I accept have a shared meaning.

‘Fine’

Masking and why it’s so hard to ask for help


Struggling to ask for help, being unable to express our needs for support and adjustments, and even accepting help and support when offered, can be extremely difficult and often debilitating for many autistic people. Recognising a need and then finding a way to express it to another person requires a complex set of cognitive, emotional and communication skills.

I’ve been aware of this in relation to my son for many years. It’s only more recently I’ve been able to recognise it within my own life. It is crucial that the people we deal with – our children’s teachers, carers, doctors and therapists; our own employers, teachers, colleagues, friends and family – understand that we might need support, even when we don’t ask for it or realise we are in need of it.

Masking, the conscious or subconscious act of presenting as ‘fine’ when we are not, can mean that we miss out on the support we need. It is often when we are most in need of support that we are least able to communicate our needs. The effort of maintaining the mask uses up all our resources, and the fear of collapse or meltdown in public, at work or school, strengthens our resolve to hold it together.

We mask and hide our difficulties for many reasons. Unmasking and revealing ourselves can leave us vulnerable, highlighting our differences and how fragile we are. If we are able to get the right support and be able to drop the mask our lives are improved. But effective masking means other people don’t recognise we need help and support, and without help and support we can’t lose the mask.

As a parent I have experienced the impact of lack of support for a masking child. As my son progressed through primary school he slowly became more adept at holding himself together and hiding his struggles and difficulties during the school day, resulting in massive meltdowns at home. Because school couldn’t see the problem it didn’t exist. Because he was unable to recognise or articulate problems he didn’t always get the support he needed.

I watched through the classroom window one day just before home time, in the final year of primary school. The class teacher and two teaching assistants were in the classroom. My son was pacing, holding his hands in fists with his arms stiff, his facial expression blank and rigid. He was obviously anxious (as the post-school meltdown proved) but they didn’t see it. I guess that if they’d asked him if he was ok he would have said he was.

A big problem has always been that my son’s verbal abilities and extensive vocabulary make it hard for many people to comprehend that he cannot verbally articulate his needs. Spoken language is just one element in effective communication. Good speech does not necessarily equate to good communication.

It is this discordance, between apparent verbal acuity and poor communication, which causes both me and my son the biggest problems in getting the support we need. Other people assume that our intellect and our vocabularies mean we can say how we feel and what we need. People accept our words, our ‘I’m fine’, as true and accurate, after all, we are notoriously honest, aren’t we?

Luckily, my son has had me, his dad and some excellent professionals along the way able to advocate for him. He is now in a school who believe me when I tell them how he really feels and what he needs, even when he shows no signs of distress at school. They recognise that how he presents and what he says might not reflect how he feels and what he needs.

As a seemingly competent autistic adult, I don’t have an advocate to help me get the support I need. I have to do it myself. When someone asks me how I am, my knee-jerk response is always to reply ‘fine’, even though I am mostly not fine. This is for several reasons:

  • I can’t find the words to effectively express how I feel.
  • I can find the words but I am worried that what I say might be misinterpreted by a neurotypical person.
  • I’m not always very good at filtering my thoughts and can easily come across as rude or aggressive.
  • I worry that my lack of expression and atypical non-verbal communication will counter the extent or urgency of my needs.
  • I worry that I won’t be believed. After all, I look fine, this thing isn’t bothering anyone else.
  • I worry that the thing which is making me not fine will be considered trivial and will be laughed at or not taken seriously.
  • I worry that if I start to say how I really feel I might make myself come across as awkward, unpleasant or too critical.
  • I worry that it will open the floodgates, resulting in losing control by crying or melting down.

And what if nobody asks how I am? If people assume I am fine because I look fine, how do I tell them I am not fine at all?

My health is something which is not fine. I have not visited my GP in years (the last time was by ambulance), despite a number of health concerns, because I cannot find a way to open the discussion. I avoid phoning to book an appointment because of my anxiety around making phone calls.

I do attend the dentist regularly because the check-up schedule means I don’t have to express or articulate my needs, I attend, the dentist asks direct and specific questions and acts on any problems. I can book a dentist appointment while I am there (in dentist mode), and choose a time and day which suits me and will cause the least anxiety. It would help if regular medical check-ups, like dental check-ups, were standard.

Work is perhaps the prime setting for masking as an adult. I have done it for years and, as previous posts have shown, it’s a hard habit to break. After many occasions when I have answered ‘fine’ in supervision sessions with my boss, even when I am not fine, I now try to use email to express my needs. I still go through all the worries I listed above, but I have learned to send the email anyway. I am much better at expressing myself in writing than in speech and I need to find ways to use this more effectively (in fact, I might even write to my GP!).

In contrast, I had an experience earlier this year which, though I didn’t realise at the time, was a perfect example of pro-active support. I was taking part in an event which was completely out of my comfort zone and realm of experience. I did not meet the woman who organised my participation until the event. Before and throughout the event she anticipated what I might find hard and supported me in a multitude of ways.

I’ve heard it argued that having support increases dependence. This is particularly the case with children who have 1-1 support at school. It’s commonly claimed that it reduces independence, providing a useful argument to cut support and reduce funding. When I look back on the event where I had that support, I realise that being supported didn’t restrict me, it empowered and enabled me.

Having someone supportive, to check in with, to keep an eye out for me, to mediate interactions and act as a guide, enabled me to do a big scary thing. What made a difference was not having to ask, just having someone who ‘got it’. This is what is missing for many of us autistic adults in our day to day lives, people around us who understand enough, who can see beyond the ‘fine’ response, to smooth our paths and help us negotiate obstacles.

With support we can do amazing things.

Thanks to Saskia.