For a new parent, advice about how to raise your kids can be overwhelming. You’re confronted online by many “parenting hacks” and “seven things you’re doing wrong with your kids”. Every piece of parenting advice assumes you have a list of negative attributes and everything comes back to some catastrophic error that you must be constantly making.
This response from the world can be frustrating for any mom and dad. Whether you want your kid to be a star athlete, world class scientist, or just barely fit into society, there’s a person there trying to convince you that some aspect of your approach to raising them is completely broken.
For desperate Autism parents, this type of “tough love” advice can be downright painful. The articles you read and the tips you’re given present you with a sense of hope. Kid not speaking? Well, according to something that recently scrolled past me on social media, it was probably my fault for not limiting screen time. Yup. Take away his iPad and, in a condescending statement, “that includes parents’ phone too.” The implication was that parents of non-verbal children just simply don’t talk to them enough and spend their days buried in Candy Crush.
Of course, that’s nonsense. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve spoken words to my son more than anyone else on Earth. I’ve worked with him to build communication and, while he still doesn’t speak, he understands more than I ever dreamed he would. We did this through the very iPad that I’m supposed to yank from his hands and various techniques that don’t involve depriving us of anything as if we were being punished. The way we helped him communicate simply involved me knowing him more than anyone else does…because he’s my kid.
I’m not picking on any one article either. This example is indicative of a much larger problem. It’s the issue of people, whether on or off line, taking a deep situation – one that we all can agree differs from person to person – and breaking it down to a simple case of, “Do this and not that. This worked for us and it will definitely work for you every single time.”
Every kid is different, and every case is unique. Are there certain techniques that I use for my non-verbal son which some might find helpful? Sure. Am I willing to talk about them? Absolutely. Would I ever be so presumptuous as to suggest that anyone who isn’t doing these things with their own kids is failing them in some way? Never.
Face to face, would you ever lecture someone about their cell phone use and imply that it’s definitely the cause of their child’s lack of speech? I couldn’t imagine sitting across the table from a friend at Applebees and declaring, “First things first, no screens means none for mom either. Put it down.” I wouldn’t stand for anyone saying it to me or my wife either. I can’t fathom the bizarre, awkward interaction that would be.
Autism or any special needs aren’t a home improvement issue. Like any form of parenting, the way to do it right is all about the child you’re trying to raise. We all have kids, but we’re not all in the same boat. Every one of us is steering a different ship. Whether your kid is on the spectrum, off the spectrum, ten feet tall, purple, or made of Play-Doh, we all have different experiences in our lives. To pretend like there are catch-all fixits that apply to every situation is, at best, arrogant and, at worst, fundamentally dishonest.
I say that we wouldn’t put up with someone saying those things to us in person, but the sad fact is that many of us find ourselves doing that too. These demanding and demeaning observations aren’t limited to the world wide web. They happen in the world wide regular world too. Sometimes friends, sometimes family, and maybe even random jerks feel the need to tell you what you’re doing wrong and how they could do a much better job if in your situation.
But they can’t and they’re not. None of them are in your situation. You’re the only one in your situation. Only you.
The praise you get is usually about “how strong” you are, which can feel insulting to your child, while the advice centers around the things you must be messing up, which feels insulting to you directly. They include things like, “You just have to talk to him more.” Whether intentional or unintentional, it can be very hurtful at a time when that’s the last thing you need.
New Autism parents are dealing with complex emotions on many levels. There’s guilt followed by guilt caused by that guilt. There’s second guessing, confusion, and anger. Many people work through it eventually while some don’t. Either way, unsolicited and arrogant advice doesn’t help. What would help is something that they probably don’t get to hear often. So I’m going to say it now.
You aren’t doing anything wrong.
I’m not saying this as a disingenuous attempt to make you feel good either. I’m saying it as a fact. Nothing truly prepares you for this journey in your life and the thought that you’re doing things incorrectly can be terrifying. While online articles use dire wording to generate clicks and create a false sense of urgency, the fact of the matter is that you’re a parent. You need to take the time to know your child and see what does or doesn’t work for them as individuals. It involves trial and error. Even the things you later discover were “wrong” at one time in your parenting were never truly wrong. They’re all simply part of that learning process. They’re needed to find out what works best for your particular life.
Don’t let anyone heap guilt on you for the sake of their own ego. You’re not the cause of your child’s missed milestones. You’re parenting. You’re learning. You’re growing. Raising a child with special needs is no different than raising a child without special needs. It will fill your heart with joy some days and rip it out of your chest on others.
Every new parent has a tough and very different road ahead. Don’t let the strongly-worded and misguided advice of others make it any tougher for you than it needs to be. If you’re confident in your own decisions and approach each day with the goal of making your children better people, you can never go wrong.