I've been watching a TV series on Netflix recently called Atypical. It's about Sam, a young man with autism and the way in which his family, school, work and relationships interact and grow. It's a very good series and I'd highly recommend it. I expect that I'll review it at some point.
Like all media about autism, it gets a few things wrong and exaggerates others. That's okay. It's fiction and it's taking a little poetic licence. At the same time though, it raises a lot of interesting points.
One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the behaviour of Sam's mother, played brilliantly by Jennifer Jason Leigh. It shows an over-parenting (and in this case, over-mothering) instinct that is all too familiar with kids on the spectrum.
In this post, I want to look at a how over-parenting happens and why it's harmful.
What is Over-Parenting?Over-parenting tends to happen much more frequently on the mother's side of parenting but that's probably because mothers are usually the primary caregivers of children. Over-mothering is most common but it's certainly possible to over-father as well.
Over-parenting may feel a bit like helicopter parenting but it's far more invasive. Helicopter parenting is about wanting to keep an eye on your children at all times. Over-parenting on the autism spectrum is about pushing your children away from the already established "boundaries".
It's more pervasive, more needy and more damaging.
For example; At a high school dance, a helicopter parent will want to escort their child to and from the dance hall. They may even want to stay and keep an eye on things while the dance is in progress. This in itself is stifling.
An over-parenting autism parent on the other hand will want to intervene to make sure that no foods are touching on their child's play when the meal is served. They may try to completely change the way the dance works to accommodate the specific needs of their child or they may simply say that their child won't go (without giving them an opportunity to say yes).
While these are signs of great care and protection, they're also very harmful to your child's development.
Why Boundaries Need to be PushedAutism comes with so many boundaries. There are sensory boundaries of sound, texture, taste, smell and sight. There are boundaries set by arbitrary fears, by rules and by routines. All of these boundaries make life on the spectrum very difficult indeed.
We all start our parenting journeys as novices but end up as experts skilled in our children's abilities and boundaries. We become predictors of their reactions, their meltdowns and their sensory difficulties.
We know for instance, to remove their plate the instant that someone, for example a visitor, touches some of their food. We know instinctively that they won't want to go to a crowded or loud place and we're experts at manipulating guests to reduce the likelihood that our children will get an unexpected hug, kiss or pat on the back.
The problem is that without constantly pushing these boundaries, they'll become set in stone and they'll reduce the ability of our children to cope without modifications.
It's important to teach your kids to continually try to push their own boundaries. If a place is noisy, they should give it a go with noise cancelling headphones. If there's a high probability of skin contact, they should try wearing clothes with long sleeves. If you're serving a meal, particularly if it's a favourite, you should encourage them to try foods which have been in contact.
Tastes change as you get older but if you limit your young adult to only the tastes that they liked as a child, you'll deprive them of the opportunity to grow and change.
If your child only eats chicken nuggets, you need to every now and then contrive a situation in which they have to choose something else. Pushing boundaries is the only way you'll expand their world.
Why Failure is just as important as SuccessWe place a whole lot of emphasis on success and it's very important to celebrate our successes; the times that our kids on the spectrum manage to avoid a meltdown, the times where they spend time with a visitor without a diatribe about their special interests, the times when they manage to eat foods of unusual flavour or texture.
Sometimes it feels that success is so elusive for our kids on the spectrum that we need to celebrate every little achievement as if it's a major victory. It's easy to forget how much of a part failure plays in success.
Every success is usually preceded by multiple failures, even if they're years apart. Every failure is a learning opportunity, a chance for you and your child to discuss what went wrong, why things fell apart, what the alternatives were and how things might still be salvaged.
Success is where we celebrate but failure is where we learn.
Over-Parenting is essentially "planning for failure". People who over-parent their children on the spectrum remove the potential for failure before it happens without realising that they're also removing the opportunity for your child to learn.
It's something that starts when they're young. We know that our kids are going to knock our favourite vases or statuettes over so we lock them up, out of sight. We know that their cup of juice will be spilled on the table, so we invest in an underlay or change their cup to a sippy cup or juicebox with a straw.
We know that their friends will overwhelm them so we take great pains to only invite them over for play dates one at a time. As our kids get older, we know that they can't play happily in groups so we simply decline birthday invitations to avoid meltdowns. Eventually, one day, the invitations stop coming and we wonder why our kids can't seem to make friends.
By planning to remove failure from our kids lives, we stop the learning process and reduce their chances of success.
Why Parents Need to let go for their own SakeThere are a lot of articles out there which talk about the 80% divorce rate when there are children on the autism spectrum. I'd recommend that you don't pay too much attention to these articles or these statistics. Your marriage isn't under the control of your children. It's entirely up to the adults to find their way through and too often these articles place blame where they shouldn't.
Marriages fail for a wide variety of reasons but they rarely fail when couples are devoted to keeping each other as priority number one.
This is where the link to over-parenting comes in. Sometimes parents can become so focused on their children on the spectrum that they build their whole world around them. They devote all of their time to their children and very little to their own needs or to those of their partners.
When one or both partners in a relationship feel under appreciated or under-needed, it makes sense that they'll respond to anyone else who offers those qualities. Marriages often break up not because couples dislike each other but because they don't make time for each other.
Children on the spectrum crave order and structure. If your focus on satisfying their immediate needs costs you your marriage, then you're not considering their long-term needs. Unless the relationship is violent, angry or devoid of love, it's usually in your child's best interests to stay together.
As a parent, you always have to remember that at some point, you won't be as necessary for your child as you were in the past. At some point, in most relationships, you and your partner will be alone when your kids have departed. As your kids get older, you need to be planning for this. You need to make sure that you and your partner are more focused on each-other than on the kids.
Where to from here?There's no doubt about it. All of us over-parent in one form or another. Even entirely neurotypical families suffer from over-parenting. From the fathers who are too terrified to let their daughters date, to the mothers who would rather keep their kids at home, for their own company, than let them go to school.
Our fears and overprotective instincts towards our children on the spectrum lead autism parents particularly towards over-parenting and put our relationships and our children's futures at risk.
Why not take some time to think about how you could make your child a little more independent and how you and your partner can find a little more quality time together. Your lives will be all the richer for it.