Raising a child with autism is a unique experience for any parent or carer.
“The challenge is, every autistic individual is different,” says Dr Ben Marlow, paediatric consultant at Re:Cognition Health (recognitionhealth.com), who has an eight-year-old son with autism. “The way children perceive the world, the way children learn” – all that will be different for neurodiverse kids, bringing with it a whole range of challenges for parents.
Marlow says raising an autistic child can be “hard”, adding: “Life isn’t all rosy, that’s for sure, but I think it’s important to bring hope and share positive experiences.”
While everyone will experience parenting differently, these are some of the common joys you might encounter when raising an autistic child..
1. They encourage you to think about things differently
Stephanie Smith is deputy headteacher at The Cavendish School – an International Baccalaureate (IB) special autism school – and has a 19-year-old son with autism.
“One of the best things is their ability to make you think about something in a different way,” she reflects. “And when we look at the world, we need more of that. We need more people challenging the status quo, and making us think in different ways.”
She suggests this can be applied to all children with autism. “For those who are non-verbal, you still have that interaction. You still get those wonderful, different ways they look at the world, if you read their body language, and read their communication.”
2. You can share their deep interests
For many children with ASD, Marlow says he’s found that “when they have an interest in something, it takes over. It provides a real focus and motivation for happiness and learning – whether that’s through love of movement, love of sensory differences, a love of a particular type of toy – that presents a unique opportunity for joy and happiness in learning.”
He suggests this can be enriching as a carer, if you can find that “shared enjoyment”, he says. “If you can engage from a parenting level, to really understand what your child is getting out of that moment – it’s a real shared connection.”
3. You’re invited to be your authentic self
Smith says many autistic children “don’t necessarily pick up on the same social cues” – and this can potentially impact your own behaviours.
“You don’t have to pretend when you’re talking with somebody who is autistic,” she considers. “You don’t have to do the social masking we [normally] do, because they don’t pick up on those bits. There’s no need to do it – you can just have really honest and lovely conversations.”
4. You might learn to strip things back
Marlow says one of the best things he’s learned as a parent of an autistic child is the power of going back to basics. “Sometimes we try and overcomplicate learning and parenting – but sometimes stripping it back to simple things, whether that’s being outdoors, or being present in the moment of what that child is experiencing.
“So paring everything back, emptying your own mind of what you were hoping the child is learning and doing, and just trying to be present with that young person. Then life becomes a lot simpler, and it promotes a lot more bond.”
5. They’ll influence your life in countless ways
While this won’t be the case for everyone, both Smith and Marlow say their career paths were shaped by having autistic children. Smith started working with the autism community in schools after her son was diagnosed.
“I hated seeing other people struggling or their children struggling, and there not being the systems in place,” she remembers. “I said, I want to be part of the system that helps build these people up, because they’re our next generation. They’re the ones challenging the status quo and moving us forward as a collective.”
Similarly, Marlow – who is a paediatric consultant providing autism assessments – says: “The reason why I’m doing my role as a doctor is because of my son – he completely changed my professional life.”
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