Parenting kids on the spectrum comes with a unique set of challenges and being a single parent puts its own spin on this. In my previous two posts, I looked at parenting young and school-aged children. In this post, I want to look at the some of the problems that are common when single parenting young autistic adults.
As usual, a quick disclaimer that I'm not a single parent, so my knowledge of this area is not first hand. It is based upon co-parenting my own autistic children and on countless observations and discussions with parents in this situation.
Disappearing without Notice
Teens and young adults generally have a lot more freedom than younger children. They have pocket money, and in some cases earnings. They can be reasonably street or bush savvy and they usually have a better understanding of public transport. Many autistic adults can drive too. All of this means that they are far more likely to disappear for hours, sometimes days, without telling anyone where they are going.
This is especially true of young autistic adults in single-parent relationships as there are less sets of eyes on them at all times. Often their parent has to work, leaving them at home by themselves for long stretches.
You can't stop these kids from wandering but there are ways in which you can reduce the danger.
A Smartphone is Key
First and foremost, it's important to be able to find your kids when they disappear. There are two key things to enable this. First, you need to make sure that they have a smartphone, it doesn't have to be the world's flashiest smartphone but it needs to be capable of the following;
- Making and receiving calls and texts
- Responding to "find my phone"
- Pinpointing locations via Google (or Apple) maps
- Charging quickly, and preferably wirelessly
- Taking photos
- Phone based payments (tap and go) if possible - as this removes the need for a wallet.
There are some quite cheap android options that will do this, so don't feel trapped into buying a thousand dollar phone. You'll also need to make sure that you have a good protective case on the phone, I recommend a survivor type case and hardened glass on the front. Make sure that you add a PIN number and engage biometrics (fingerprints) too.
If you're not sure how to configure the phone, get some help as you'll need to be able to activate find my phone from your own phone, to locate your young adult.
You should ensure that your young adult knows how to contact you, how to answer calls and texts and how to take photos, use maps and determine their location.
Wallets and Tiles
The other key item is the wallet. It should contain
- A house key, some money,
- Some minor identifying data but not full addresses and not important documents**
- A Smart tile if possible
** In all likelihood, the wallet is going to get lost at some point. The last thing you want in there is your address and a house key. The key is more important than a full address as your young adult should know their own address off by heart and should at least know their suburb and key landmarks.
A smart tile is one thing that I really strongly recommend. In fact, I have one attached to my keys at all times. There's an apple equivalent, called an "airtag" but the standard tile is cheap and works well for all phones.
A tile will enable you to track its location and unlike a phone, it doesn't need charging, just a battery change once per year. You should put the tile into a safe but unused part of the wallet. This will be your backup when the phone runs out of battery and it will also help you to recover the wallet if it is lost or stolen.
Finally, you'll need to make sure that your young adult has a clear understanding of right and wrong, what to do if they meet "wrong people" and where to go to for help (local police). Sometimes it helps to give them some cards with your contact details and a quick description of their diagnosis. This can help to get you into important conversations earlier as they can hand the card to police if they get into trouble.
Arguments and Meltdowns
If your child is autistic then you're likely no stranger to arguments and meltdowns. Unfortunately, as your kids get older, these arguments tend to get louder and more heated. Meltdowns too become more of a problem because the resulting damage can be much larger and more costly.
Arguments that escalate are more of a problem in single-parent relationships because you don't have another adult to back you up. As with small children, it's important to pick your battles. You might think that you know that there are no blue apples but winning an argument about it with your teen isn't going to make any difference.
Arguments put a strains on relationships and while it's important to win arguments relating to safety, arguments over what your young adult wants to wear to work usually aren't worth the added stress.
It's also important to teach your young adult about the "pick your battles" rule. You need to help them understand how and when to lose an argument gracefully. Just don't try to teach them this in the middle of an argument.
When your kids are younger, there's usually an adult present to stop problem behaviour before it starts. Often, the mere presence of an adult is enough to stop adolescents acting on a whim but with all the hormonal activity in their body and a reduction in supervision comes the risk of problem behaviour.
Problem behaviour refers to all kinds of undesirable social behaviour and it isn't always sexual in nature however in teens and young adults, it more often is. In girls, the behaviours are often related to promiscuity and narcotics which can lead to violence. In boys, early problem behaviours tend to be acts of stalking or exposure which can, in extreme circumstances, lead to police charges.
It's critical to keep talking to your young adults about their day and their feelings. As a parent, you need to look for signs that they are engaging in problem behaviour because most likely they won't engage in it while you're around. You can't address problem behaviour if you don't know that it's happening.
Another issue can occur in single-parent or single-sex relationships is a lack of balance. Boys in particular, can develop unhealthy attitudes towards women. It's very important to keep the conversation flowing about how to treat other people and about dating etiquette -- even if your young adult isn't dating yet. This helps to prevent the development of unhealthy attitudes.
It's also good to show an interest in what your young adult is doing on the internet, for example, what YouTube channels they are watching, where they go on reddit and discord and what types of comments they are making. I'm not suggesting that you install spyware or cyber-stalk them, just show an interest and listen to what the have to say and what they consider funny. If you come across anything that seems odd, resist the temptation to criticise on the spot as that will probably get you kicked out of their social media circles. Just make a note of attitudes that need a little help and address them later in a way that doesn't reveal their source. Remember, the goal is to teach new points of view, not to enforce them.
This concludes the series on single parenting kids on the spectrum. I had to leave quite a bit out, particularly from this post, in order to keep them short. I'll most likely include these bits in future posts.