There are probably millions of articles out there about non-autistic parents raising autistic children and how they perceive and interpret their children’s behavior. However, there doesn’t seem to be much information about the opposite dynamic, and I think it’s really important to explore.
What is it like for an autistic parent to have a non-autistic child? Are there communication challenges? Behavioral confusion? I asked to interview an autistic man who has a non-autistic son, and he had a very unique perspective to share.
Also, and I want to be completely clear about this. This article is not meant to be a satire piece or show a fictitious role reversal.
This is a very real dynamic, and since the neurology of autistic people differs from that of neurotypicals, I think it would be very helpful to the community if there were more information and resources about said dynamic.
Here is my interview with the father (who has chosen to remain anonymous at this time).
1. What is it like to have a non-autistic child?
Having any child is a life-changing experience. Having one who isn’t like you, though, is also a learning experience. I think I cried when it fully sunk in that “childhood wonder” is a real and short-lived thing for allistic children, and I did a double take recently when my wife stated that soon our son’s emotions would open wide up. He’s already more emotional than I ever have been!
On a day-to-day basis, my son is a lot more talkative than I ever was. He seldom wants to play with toys unless he can do so with other people . . . and he plays in a completely different way. He wants to have the characters talk, and often he wants to narrate the entire “story” telling me what my characters do, as well.
He and his mother can also change schedule at a moment’s notice . . . suddenly going somewhere or doing something, which I cannot do without extreme discomfort.
For example, the other day, they woke me up at six AM begging me to go shopping ASAP so they could make pancakes, eggs, and sausage for breakfast. Tomorrow, they are going to a parade and staying the night somewhere so they can do festive stuff with friends.
Both of them are also way more comfortable asking me for things than I am with doing the same. The issue is, they tend to be extremely vague.
My life is punctuated with “Can you do something for me?”, “Can I have a favor?”, “I’m hungry.” , “Can you do it for me?”, “Can you get it for me?”, “Daddy, can you play with me?”, “I’m lonely. Can you be with me for a bit?”
If there’s one very important thing I’ve learned from having a neurotypical child, it’s this:
Independence is not something you are going to have with an NT child. They need a lot of attention.
2. What communication challenges do you face with your neurotypical child?
My child loves to make things up and try to be manipulative*. If he doesn’t want to be in his room, he’s suddenly afraid of the dark or he’s hearing weird voices in there . . . but if you put a computer screen or TV screen in the room, suddenly he doesn’t want to come out, and everything is fine.
Some mornings, he throws a tantrum and fights me about going to school because he wants to do something else. There isn’t anything WRONG going on at school when I investigate . . . he just doesn’t want to go.
He’ll claim he’s sick and then throw another tantrum when I make him lie down or take a bath, or otherwise rest rather than doing what he wants . . . running around and playing or using his electronics in a perfectly healthy way. He’s not sick or even sick with anxiety. Again, he just doesn’t want to go and wants to convince me to keep him home.
He’ll also lie when there is no reason. He’ll make up stories like being able to teleport or having dug a hole in our backyard down into an abandoned military base . . . and he INSISTS these stories are REALLY TRUE.
This causes me a lot of problems because when I did the same behaviors I really was sick, or I really was hearing and seeing things (sensory overload/anxiety) . . . ditto if I threw a “Tantrum.” It was actually a meltdown and had nothing to do with emotional manipulation and trying to get my way. . . of course, it was still called a tantrum since I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my thirties.
So, I see it, and I feel really guilty, and often I have to have my wife look at him to tell what he’s actually doing so I don’t beat myself up for not treating him the way I wish my parents had treated me. But he’s not autistic. He’s allistic, and they are very different.
*Interviewers note: It is my sincere belief that non-autistic children and adults are naturally “manipulative,” but not out of malice. I think it’s part of the wiring of the neurotypical brain to try to get others to do what you want them to do, even if you have to make things up in order to do so, so you can survive.
3. Are there behaviors your neurotypical child exhibits that confuse you?
All the time! It suddenly makes a lot more sense why my parents would tell me to think before I speak or would question whether I knew the difference between reality and fantasy.
My child’s emotional reactions are quick and intense. They don’t respond to logic, and often my wife scolds me because my tone or volume is making things worse rather than better, and I have no idea why that would be the case.
Again the old adage that I hate so much comes into play, “It’s not what I’m saying that he’s reacting to, it’s how I’m saying it,” and that means nothing to me.
That isn’t to say I don’t care. I mean, my brain literally doesn’t understand how the tone in my voice could be causing an emotional reaction. Intellectually, I’ve learned this is the case, but since I don’t have the same experience, I have trouble identifying with it.
My son also loves things that I would consider “awful,” such as bright colors, loud noises, crowds of people . . . things that cause me actual pain. I already mentioned the parade he’s going to this weekend. I can’t imagine something more painful and pointless than a loud, bright, crowded parade; unless it’s a loud, bright, crowded fireworks display.
Also, I simply can’t predict how he’ll feel or act or what he’ll like based on my own feelings or even on some logical human common ground.
He constantly surprises me, and I learn from experience by going through his childhood with him. That’s how I predict anything with him; based on his past behaviors.
That can be a problem as he goes through different developmental stages as, just when I think I’m getting a handle on understanding his behavior, he changes overnight!
4. Have you had to modify your parenting style to accommodate your child’s neurology?
This one is hard to answer. I have to change my parenting style because my wife is fourteen years younger than me and grew up with two “hippy” parents. In other words, my wife’s parents were very permissive and gentle. I, on the other hand, grew up in a very authoritarian and abusive environment.
My expectations and hers were so different when we met that it sometimes seemed like we’d never be able to parent together. We both had to compromise on everything and talk over everything.
I’m a lot looser and more relaxed in my parenting than I ever expected to be comfortable with, and she has firmed up a lot so that we meet at a nice middle ground. In a way, we’ve both moved away from our parents’ disciplinary styles. I’m not sure if that’s related to our neurotypes or not.
5. What advice would you give to autistic parents who have neurotypical children?
An allistic child needs a lot of attention and human companionship. Since this may be difficult for you to provide as often as necessary as an autistic person, you will want to make sure you have a support network in place. Have your child go out to things you wouldn’t enjoy with your partner and other relatives.
Have your child spend time with neurotypical grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Let the school know about your brain wiring so they can help your child integrate into activities and understand that you might not be the best example for them to learn neurotypical social interaction from.
Also, make sure you have your own space. It can be a room in the house that is just for you or a set day when the family leaves. Whatever the arrangement is, you need your own space while living with a family whose needs and desires are radically different from your own; otherwise, you’ll burn out fast.
Ensure you have an outlet for your frustrations that is impartial. I see my therapist once a week, and a lot of that time is spent venting about things that happened during the week. It can be little things or big ones.
Good communication and compromise are the heart of ANY relationship, but, your partner can’t be the person you vent about your partner to. That is just asking for argument. Your child also is not an appropriate outlet for your frustrations.
You aren’t suddenly going to share a brain type, and it’s never going to be easy. Little irritations happen, and you need an impartial outlet for them and someone you trust to help you figure out what is important, what isn’t, and how to approach your partner without alienating them.
It’s not going to be easy, but often it’s worth it if you have the proper supports and structures in place. Make sure you take care of yourself, so you can enjoy being with your family, and they can enjoy their time with you.