Leveling the Playing Field for Autistic Parents
July 06, 2023
By: Kris McElroy
It’s 5:45 in the morning, and her feet patter into the room. She gets into the bed, rests her head next to mine on the pillow, and yells “Ruff” right in my ear. “Ruff, wake up, Daddy, Ruff.” Yep, dogs are still one of her favorite animals. I turn and say, “Ruff, good morning, Kenz. Did you sleep well?” It’s officially time to start the day. Will it be a smooth start or a rough one? Well, let’s see if it is Monday or Tuesday. Yay, it’s Tuesday — Music Tuesday at her preschool — which means a smooth start to the morning routine.
My partner and I always call each other after morning drop-off — it feels like a preschool mission completed. “How did it go?” The answer varies.
I’m an autistic, biracial Black, transgender parent with multiple disabilities. I am also a parent like any parent. Because of externalized and internalized stigma, I felt that being an autistic parent made me “less than” for the first year and a half of my daughter’s life. Now, she is three years old, and while I am still learning and growing, like most parents, I know that being an autistic parent does not make me “less than.” However, it does bring a mix of its own challenges, extras, and superhero powers to the game. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
I remember as a kid the pit of defeat in my stomach when I felt like I was always lost in how to do a task or like I was starting 10 feet behind everyone else at the starting line. Being a parent created a similar feeling but on a different playing field. I read all the first-time parent books and figured out strategies. However, I kept coming up with very few practical tips or suggestions on how to be an autistic parent. Having an infant and a toddler didn’t provide time to learn these invisible, unpredictable rules of the game. I just wanted to learn tips for leveling the field. I wanted to know if I was capable of being a good dad.
The first tips I learned that made a difference were:
Being a parent and support go hand in hand. I’ve found that as an autistic parent, I am less likely to seek and accept support that does not come from an autism-positive and understanding perspective.
On the one hand, my child’s preschool has been an unintentional source of added stress. This is due largely to unclear communication, poor follow-through, impact on my child’s school experience, and unannounced conversations about important information during pick-up and drop-off. I attempted to advocate on my behalf and Kenzy’s to no avail. My child’s early intervention provider also tried, but it has not felt like we have been on the same team with the preschool staff.
On the other hand, our pediatrician’s office models this support. They create an environment where I can access what I need physically, cognitively, and sensorially, from low lights to supporting me in taking notes while also providing examples, to a handicapped-accessible building, extra engagement activities, and staff to support my daughter with her specific needs. This also makes me feel like I am on a level parenting field as an autistic parent taking my child to the doctor. He has become a neurodivergent-friendly provider and a trusted member of Team Kenzy.
In my world, autistic parents are autistic adults who are parents. When you’ve met one autistic parent, you’ve met one. Take the time to get to know each autistic parent as an individual.
It’s also helpful to know that:
Support: I’m always looking to grow my autistic parent community, as well as my other parent-identity communities (LGBTIQ+ parents, disabled parents, adoptive parents, etc.). I see a therapist monthly who fits my needs as an autistic parent with trauma and mental health conditions.
Community: As an autistic parent, I give myself permission to do things differently. I look at event accessibility and the agenda ahead of time. I pick times when it’s not too crowded for shopping and activities. I utilize sensory-friendly times for community activities such as movies, story-time, and indoor playgrounds. I also find support in books, music, classes, and programs. My child’s early intervention provider has helped me sharpen my skills while also helping my child to develop her social and emotional skills.
Emotional regulation: Understanding co-escalation and co-regulation has expanded my self-awareness and skills as an autistic parent who struggles with emotional regulation.
Sensory needs: In my household, everyone has sensory needs. Sometimes they align. Sometimes they conflict. Working with an occupational therapist through my child’s early intervention services has opened my world up to the role of a sensory-friendly diet, increasing my capacity to be my child’s human gym she climbs every day by building my sensory reserve tank throughout the week. And we’ve learned that we each have different sensory needs. The impact has been life-changing.
As an autistic parent, I want to remind other autistic parents that you are not alone. Though we’re in different spaces and places or at different stages of parenting, we’re all on this journey together. We’re learning, growing, and parenting one moment at a time.
Kris McElroy is a biracial Black autistic transman living with multiple disabilities. He is a human services professional, public speaker, writer, artist, and advocate living in Maryland with his wife and daughter. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Maryland and his master’s degree in multidisciplinary human services from Capella University. Since 2009, he has been a dedicated human services professional serving in many different capacities to support various communities. Additionally, he has been a cast member of the Telling This Truth Theatrical Production for trauma survivors and has self-published several books and workbooks.