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OARacle Newsletter

In today’s interconnected world, no one is immune to social media’s portrayal of perfect parenthood, but reality is rarely seamless. This immaculate portrait of parenting is not only unattainable, it is discouraging and breeds guilt as we fall short of effectuating this model within our own families. Raising any child is extremely stressful. While parenting as a whole is the process of raising an individual from infancy to adulthood, autism adds another level of anxiety to this seemingly insurmountable task.

To some extent or another, every child melts down when they feel their world is out of control, chews things or picks at their skin, nails, and hair to calm themselves. Even lining up toys or repetitive play can be considered typical behavior up to a certain age. A child on the spectrum also runs this gauntlet of behaviors, however, they are much more persistent, prolonged, and exaggerated. To this day, I still find myself asking other parents if their children exhibited the same behaviors I see in my own kids. The common answer being, “yes, but they grew out of it quickly,” while my children carried on for much longer. Thus, the difference between a neurotypical child versus a child on the spectrum lies in the ability to shift from one formative behavior to the next as they age. As a parent of autistic children, my task is to aid this transition that would otherwise come easily.

At one time or another, we have all dealt with childhood meltdowns, sensory issues, and emotional dysregulation, while simultaneously teaching our kids socially acceptable conduct, methods of communicating, and appropriate play behaviors. These are all typical milestones that every child must overcome, whether autistic or not. No individual begins life knowing how to control their emotions or communicate effectively. Much of my days are spent watching for cues that my sons are becoming overwhelmed and intervening before they lose control and melt down. As children grow, they will eventually learn skills to regulate their behaviors. These skills and behaviors are either learned through observance or actively taught by caregiving adults, then mimicked and perfected through play and other interactions. This task, however, does not come easily to a child on the spectrum.

Parenting my own children, I found that I had to model and role-play a lot of the socially acceptable behaviors that my boys struggled to comprehend. By the age of four, my eldest son had not learned to play with toys. My husband and I had to demonstrate play behaviors by getting down on the floor and showing him what to do with his toys. For the next year he mimicked what we had shown him, gradually adding to the play narrative as he aged. Today, his play is very elaborate and imaginative.

In addition to my son’s confusion with creative play, he also struggled with social interactions. Though he obviously wanted to interact with other children, he did not know how to initiate a dialogue. My son would walk up to another kid only to halt face to face with the child and stare, knowing that he was being seen and waiting for a conversation to start. Through patient coaching and modeling of different socializing behaviors, I taught my son to identify basic body language and, together, we formulated a script for him to follow when initiating conversations. Over the years we have expanded on this crude framework and, now, my son converses fluidly and has acquired several friends.

Thankfully, children’s little minds are like sponges, predisposing them to absorb knowledge through exposure to experiences. A child with autism can still learn, but the application of these new skills does not always come naturally. As parents of neurodiverse children, we have the added task of brokering the connections between natural learning and the application of these new skills by role-playing, modeling, or intervening and redirecting before a child becomes overwhelmed. While this intermediary instruction can be laborious and exhausting, it is not an impossible task. There are many children with autism who have made it to adulthood and are thriving.

Looking back on my childhood, I realized that, through my silent struggle with neurodiversity many years before I knew I had autism, I overcame many of my personal issues without guidance. I became a master observer, learning and mimicking behaviors in order to adapt and blend into the world around me. I taught myself to communicate fluidly by observing and writing a transcript of actual conversations, which I could follow. I figured out how to overcome my fear of loud noises by purposeful exposure and eventual desensitization. While I would have benefited from professional direction, I still flourished unaided. If I can succeed, so too can others. This assurance, not meant to downplay the severity of the issues faced by parents of autistic children, gives me confidence and hope that my children will also have a bright future.

As an autistic parent of autistic children, I often feel that my stress and struggles are unique but, heeding the similar accounts of other parents’ daily struggles with both neurotypical and neurodivergent children, I am heartened by the fact that I am not alone. Rather than thinking about our differences in regards to raising children, let us focus on helping each other and being more understanding. Every child learns in their own way, whether neurotypical or divergent, and they all have the same milestones. The biggest difference being that autistic children need extra time and instruction in those areas that come naturally to their non-autistic peers, but this does not make them incapable of learning.

J.M. ShawJ.M. Shaw lives in Airdrie, Alberta with her husband and two young children. She has a background in x-ray technology and psychology, and enjoys martial arts, airsoft, running, and hiking. In 2019, a diagnosis of autism for herself and both her sons began her incredible journey of understanding, acceptance, and life-long learning. She has enjoyed creative writing for more than 30 years and found the courage to become a published author after receiving her diagnosis of ADHD and autism. You can visit her website at or follow her on Instagram @jmshaw_author.