“Your child has autism” is a pretty surreal thing to hear as a parent. There’s the initial reaction – “that doesn’t sound right” – and then gradually, you start to see it in certain aspects of their behaviour. Little things.
You wouldn’t particularly know it if you met my son. He might seem a bit shy at first, or he might come out with things you don’t expect (a bit like his dad) but you wouldn’t necessarily think he’d been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). High functioning, the counselling psychologists and psychotherapists called it.
Sometimes, my little boy is the most sociable person you can imagine. Chatting to shop assistants, tube passengers, waiting staff. It makes me really proud. I see the best of myself, but at a much earlier age than I was able to harness it.
Other times, he just wants to be left alone. “I need some alone time now” is a phrase we hear a lot.
He might want to get away from everyone, play a video game or watch YouTube videos for a few hours. Minimise his external stimuli. Then again, don’t we all get like that sometimes? There are times when I’ve got a lot going on and I can’t think about properly interacting with the people around me. I’m not trying to be antisocial – it’s just part of being a person, part of having varying moods and inclinations. It’s a way of dealing with what’s going on in your head, a way of processing all the information that the world fires at you, mercilessly, for every waking hour.
And that’s the key point. Being diagnosed with ASD doesn’t mean a person’s automatically socially inept, consigned to a world of their own that no one else can understand. It means they display certain traits in different ways, and in different quantities, to neurotypical people. We’re all on a behavioural spectrum; while most people cluster around the middle, others are dotted around the edges. It’s a big world out there. It would be a pretty boring one if all our minds worked the same way.
You might look at a brain as you would a computer. If you try and do too much at once, if you have a lot of windows open at the same time, then the computer will slow down. You might have to close a few to give the computer a chance to do its thing. To stop it becoming overwhelmed. Once it’s got through the bottleneck of data, it’ll speed up again.
Autism can also manifest in the way people recognise the feelings of others. My son can sometimes take a joke too far, not realising he might cause upset to someone. It’s not malice – he might just take a little longer to process the person’s reaction. Likewise, he might sometimes need time to understand his own reaction to something. When you’re a parent and you know something’s bothering your child, it’s very easy to overwhelm them by trying too hard to find out what’s wrong. You need to give them the respect, the distance and the time to process what’s happened, but stay open enough that they’ll feel able to approach you when they’re more comfortable. Mashing the keyboard is unlikely to bring the desired response from a computer. It’ll only give it more processes, more tasks, more confusion.
Sometimes I look back at the ways I’ve handled situations with my son, and I feel embarrassed; useless, even. I think about times I’ve upset him because I didn’t have the patience or the knowledge to comprehend what he was going through. Everything can be a chore, whether it’s getting him to do his homework, brush his teeth or change his clothes. I used to think he just wanted to be awkward (don’t get me wrong – sometimes, he does!) but in reality, he was trying to get to grips with the situation in his own way. Telling myself that I didn’t know any better doesn’t make me feel any less embarrassed. I can’t change the way I handled those situations, but I can choose to be more understanding. I can choose to be a more tolerant and supportive parent, to think about how I might feel if the roles were reversed. Would I want someone pressurising me when I already had a lot going on? Would I want someone shouting at me when I was already upset, agitated and overwhelmed? Would I want someone adding to the noise? Coercion isn’t always the key. Sometimes, calmness is what you need.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy, of course. Being a parent to any child isn’t easy. But there’s possibly an extra layer of difficulty thrown in when they have a neurodivergence. Luckily, the love you have as a parent also compensates for that by giving you the will, the determination and the desire to get better, and to help your child face those challenges.
The words “your child has autism” mean a lot of things. They mean there are certain situations your child will find really difficult. They mean you need to show even more patience, even more tolerance, than you already do as a parent. They mean your child might also excel in other areas – see things in a way that most people don’t. If you work hard to understand their coping mechanisms, focus on their strengths and allow them to see the world their way, then they might just teach you a few things about yourself too. My son does, every day. And there’s not a second when I’m not grateful for who he is.
Alex Voskou | Content Specialist and Neurodiversity Lead | INVESTIGO GROUP
Investigo Group is a collection of specialised brands offering talent solutions across the private and public sector. This covers professional recruitment, executive search, consulting, advisory and talent management.