Parenting in Light of Neurodiversity
Parenting in light of neurodiversity often occurs through trial and error. Today, Lisa Pelissier describes tips she’s learned while trial-and-error parenting her son who has high functioning autism.
My son has high functioning autism. He can pass. He seems “normal” to people who don’t know him well. But his thoughts are organized very differently. This was a challenge for both of us as we homeschooled. Traditional schooling methods had to be tweaked, adjusted, or thrown out altogether. Here are some differences that autistic people can encounter, and tips for dealing with them.
Difference #1: No Subterfuge
My son has no filters. He says what he thinks and he says it in plain words, with no underlying meaning behind them. What he says is what he means. And he expects others to do the same. This means he can miss out on the various subtexts of a conversation. Sometimes people convey a need for secrecy, a plea for help, a threat, or a promise with body language or with a subtle shift in the pacing and tone of their words. This is, for the most part, lost on my son.
Tip: Always say what you mean, and say it explicitly with words. Be clear and precise. Tell your child with words what you are feeling, especially if your feeling is directed toward your child—whether you’re proud of them, angry with them, pleased with them, or disappointed with them, don’t assume they understood your feelings from your tone and expression. If you notice others hinting at something, pick an opportune time to explain to your child what was going on.
Difference #2: Hyperfocus on One Thing to the Exclusion of All Else
When my son was about six, he woke up in a state of complete anger and frustration. It turns out he had dreamed about Care Bears. I understood, I told him, that Care Bears were not his ideal topic for dreamland, but why did that make him so angry? “Because I’m supposed to dream about trains!” Turns out, he dreamed about trains every single night. He felt betrayed by his mind’s brief excursion into another topic against his will. For the first ten years of my son’s life, all he thought about was trains.
Tip: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Does he have to work on math? Math can be about trains. Does he need to write a composition? Trains again. Draw a picture? Trains. Learn some science? Have him research the differences between steam, diesel, and electrical power for trains. And a special interest can segue into other things. Trains evolved into a love of roller coasters, amusement parks, local history, and geography.
Difference #3: Processing Takes More Time
I usually ended my son’s school years in frustration. He hadn’t learned the math. He hadn’t learned the Latin. I would take the summer off and by the time the new school year started, he had grasped the concepts I’d been teaching him before the break. It took him that long to process what he’d been taught. My instruction hadn’t been in vain—it had just seemed like it.
Tip: Stop worrying. Give your child time to rest and reflect. Just because your child doesn’t understand something now, doesn’t mean it’s not in their head somewhere being processed. Relax. Wait.
Difference #4: Eye Contact Is Difficult
If eye contact is difficult, try conversing in the car. Side-by-side you can talk without having to worry about your eyes meeting. Volunteer to drive carpool for events with other children. Your child may be able to engage with friends more easily while everyone is strapped into a seat facing forward. Let your child have sleepovers with their friends. There is no eye contact in the dark.
People with autism aren’t deficient. They are just different. Parenting in light of neurodiversity gets easier when you learn to engage in ways that meet your child where he or she is at. You’ve got this.
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Lisa Pelissier lives in Oregon where she is a homeschooling mother of four (three with disabilities) and author of three middle-grade fiction novels. Lisa owns SneakerBlossom Books, offering Christian, classical homeschool Study Guides and curriculum. She also works as a freelance copy editor, an artist, a substitute teacher, and a tutor. In her spare time Lisa enjoys playing the piano and fretting about things over which she has no control. Email Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect on Facebook.
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