When Caley, a young woman on the autism spectrum, was younger, she loved babies. “She’d coo at them and play with them and openly admire them,” her sister, Creigh explained. But when Caley started expressing her desire to have kids of her own someday, others started to intervene—first subtly, then not so subtly. She was told she couldn’t be a parent because she was autistic, and being autistic meant she couldn’t be a good mom. Besides, all the challenges of autism would get in her way. This hurt Caley. In order to protect herself from the pain, she feigned disinterest in children. Said she didn’t want them and didn’t even like them.
But here’s what Caley’s naysayers didn’t know: while our knowledge of the subject is limited, we do know people with autism can be good parents. In fact, many parents nowadays discover their own autism as a result of having their children diagnosed. While being a parent on the spectrum definitely comes with its challenges and struggles, autism alone does not define one’s parenting abilities. Certain traits of autism can even be advantageous to parenting.
Strengths of Parents with Autism
Our current research on autistic parenting is extremely limited, so we have no way of knowing for sure how autistic parents compare to neurotypical parents. But while autism can bring about several difficulties with parenting, some individuals cite it can also be an advantage.
People with autism, for one, tend to be rather structured and rigid. This character trait can help parents stay on top of things with their kids. One autistic mom, Kimberly, says, “I run everything, so whether it’s tennis or doctor appointments or camps or what classes they’re in or making sure they’re introduced to new ideas and new activities and new experiences, that’s all me. I’m on top of all that.”
Another feature of autism that can create fantastic parenting is the hyper-focus, particularly if that focus is directed toward their children. As Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism researcher, says, “My clinical experience is that some of the parents with autism are fantastic parents. The same kind of obsessive approach that characterizes autism in other ways can be a really positive thing in parenting.”
Perhaps most significantly, autistic people can be incredible parents to children who are also on the spectrum. They’ve been there; they get it. They can understand why their child is engaging in a behavior that would make other people scratch their heads in confusion—and that’s because they understand their way of thinking and perceiving the world. And perhaps best of all, autistic parents can provide their children with autism-specific coping skills and things that have helped them get through the neurotypical world.
Struggles of Parents with Autism
Parenting in general is hard. But for those on the spectrum, it can present a whole other set of challenges that neurotypical parents might not face.
Needless to say, some of the challenges of autism can transfer over into parenting. Sensory issues can make dealing with children very overwhelming, and the constant demands of parenting can be especially stressful for them. Communicating with professionals (like doctors and teachers) on their child’s behalf is also hard due to inherent communication struggles. Executive functioning struggles can make the smooth running of a household difficult. Socializing their children can also be difficult. “It’s been hard to teach the kids things we ourselves are no good at,” one mom named Sophie notes.
There are also some slightly less-obvious aspects of autistic parenting that can make it a struggle.
According to an unpublished survey conducted by Baron-Cohen and his colleagues, autistic moms are more likely to experience depression before and after birth. It’s also more common for them to feel isolated and judged. Their inherent social struggles and unique differences make fitting into parenting groups difficult, which can leave them feeling alone. Their struggles and differences can also make them feel “less-than” neurotypical parents.
And for some, fears of being judged as parents go much, much deeper than one might think. Some live in fear that, due to discrimination and misunderstanding, they will be deemed “unfit” to be parents and will have their children taken away from them. These parents may be placed under higher scrutiny from child welfare agencies—just because they have autism.
One autistic mom, Nicola, knows this terror all too well. “My children are happy and doing well at school,” she says. “What other measure can there be that I’m a good mother? But because of my autism, I live in fear. Society thinks that autistic mothers are, first and foremost, a safeguarding issue. I’m terrified that social services will take them away from me.”
In spite of the scrutiny and prejudice toward autistic parents, many in this group do not get the support they need. Baron-Cohen’s survey revealed that 80 percent of autistic moms in the U.K. did not get the support they asked for from doctors, schools, and social welfare agencies.
What Parents with Autism Need
When it comes right down to it, autistic parents are doing the same thing as neurotypical parents: their very best.
- A support system among autistic parents for the sake of solidarity and idea-sharing.
- Awareness and understanding to reduce stigma and stereotypes and foster compassion and empathy.
- Respite care for when things get too overwhelming and they need a break.
- Help with day-to-day tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping to reduce stress.
- Education/mentoring programs that could help autistic parents with things that don’t come naturally to them.
Neurotype alone does not determine anyone’s capability of doing anything—including parenting. Autistic people can be fantastic parents who raise fantastic kids—whether those kids are neurotypical or also fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. And by granting these parents with more support and less judgment, we can make a world of difference for parents and children alike.
Oh, and by the way…remember Caley, who wanted to be a mom before people started telling her she couldn’t? That dream never died. She has declared, once again, that she would like to be a mother someday. And thanks to increased autism awareness and acceptance, her decision has been met with support from those who previously tried to shut her down. One thing is for sure: her kids someday are sure going to be lucky to have her as a mother.
A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.