When you become a parent you make a decision: you decide you’re going to sacrifice your own needs in order to look after those of another. You commit to giving up your time, energy, sleep and even your life, if necessary, so that your child is kept healthy, happy and safe. And you swear you will do everything in your power to create a well-adjusted, confident, stable and successful human being.
When you have Asperger’s Syndrome, you have to make a further decision: I’m not going to let my autism stop me being a good parent, come what may.
There are a number of natural deficits that afflict parents with Asperger’s. We love routines and struggle to cope with change, two characteristics that don’t really lend themselves to looking after an unpredictable ball of poop and pee. Our rigid thinking and difficulties processing information impinge upon our ability to do the multitasking required for effective parenting. Problems with motor clumsiness make baby handling somewhat awkward, while sensory issues such as hypersensitive smell and hearing make nappy-changing a horrific burden. But none of these are insurmountable.
When I encounter sudden change, I grit my teeth and bear it, fight down the anxiety that rips through my insides, and recover later, after the baby has gone to bed. Since I get easily distracted and can’t multitask, all I do when watching the baby is watch the baby – I can’t watch TV, read a book, enjoy a coffee or even go to the toilet, and when we’re out and about I pay scant attention to the outside world, but that is the price I pay, and the decision I’ve made, to keep her safe. And when I change her nappy I hold down the disgust and queasiness, smile as though everything is fine, and get on with the job at hand.
More difficult for the Aspergic parent is understanding and meeting your child’s needs. Given our difficulties interpreting social communication and problems understanding how other people think and feel, we can be oblivious to our child’s emotional state and struggle to give appropriate support. Since we often have limited social needs we can fail to appreciate our child’s social needs and thanks to social phobia fail to provide for them. And because we struggle to understand our emotions we can have difficulties regulating our behaviour in front of our children.
Again, none of these problems are insurmountable. Just because we do not intuitively ‘get’ our children the way a neurotypical parent might doesn’t mean we can’t consciously learn to meet their needs. I get advice from other parents, books and the internet to understand my daughter’s developmental needs and how to meet them. I study her noises and facial expressions to work out what they might mean. I take her to social events, the fair, the park, to give her the opportunity to mix with other children. I know she’s looking to me for reassurance so I make sure I smile and act confident even though inside I’m on the verge of panic. Going forward, I will encourage her to communicate her needs and feelings in an open and honest fashion, and I will discuss them and adapt my behaviour to meet them.
My life as a parent with Asperger’s is all about lists, and study, and systems, and hard-thinking. I compensate for my natural deficits by using my intellect. Since I spent 28-years without a diagnosis masking my condition, I hide my problems from my daughter and refuse to let them stop me from being a good parent. It is hard, it is thankless, and it is painful, but it is the decision I chose to make when I had a child.
And it is working. At thirteen months my daughter is a bubbly, happy, confident, outgoing, highly sociable little girl who only wants to run around the park playing with children she’s never met and get involved in anything and everything that’s going on around her. She is in every way the very model of a healthy, successful human being despite having two parents on the autism spectrum.
So you can imagine my anger and disgust when, upon entering ‘parenting’ and ‘Asperger’s’ into a search engine, I was confronted by pages and pages of horrendous, prejudiced, discriminatory anti-Aspie bile.
There is a paper by a psychologist calling for parents with AS to be labelled with a ‘parenting disability’. There is an article saying an Aspergic parent raising a neurotypical child is ‘the definition of abuse’. Everywhere you look there are articles and opinion pieces about how bad Aspergic people are at parenting, and how all children of autistic parents suffer long-term psychological damage, depression and low self-esteem. It is inevitable, apparently, that our children will suffer lifelong difficulties as we are such failures as human beings.
Autistic parents, so says the rhetoric, are inhuman unfeeling monsters who are incapable of expressing love or meeting any of their child’s needs; we should have our children closely monitored and/or removed for their own welfare; and we place a massive burden on child services and mental health teams. And even if we think we’re doing a good job, we’re actually not – we simply don’t have the insight or self-awareness to realise we’re crap, abusive, emotionally neglectful parents. While it is rarely explicitly expressed, it’s hard not to get the impression that a lot of people out there think that people such as myself should not be allowed to procreate. As parents, people with AS are the proverbial lepers.
As a parent with Asperger’s, it’s hard not to be affected by such bigoted negativity. It’s hard not to let that negativity seep inside and colour your parenting experience. But the fact is, they’re wrong, so, so wrong.
True, some people with Asperger’s Syndrome will make terrible parents, just as many neurotypical parents shouldn’t have a dog, let alone a child. But because I know I have Asperger’s Syndrome, it makes me a better parent because I am constantly assessing and evaluating my behaviour and consciously adapting it to better meet my daughter’s needs. Knowing kids need to feel love and Aspergic people are rarely demonstrative, I make sure to express my love in demonstrative ways. Knowing children need to develop their self-esteem and Aspergic people are too honest, when she brings home a picture from school that I think is rubbish I will tell her how good it is and put it on the fridge. I will study, and sacrifice, and tirelessly toil to be the best damned parent I can possibly be because that is the choice I have made.
And I will fight for the rights of any other Aspergic parent who makes the same choice, because saying that people with AS are incapable of being good parents is the real ‘definition of abuse’.