As an autistic parent to an autistic child, I often play the role of a cultural ambassador in online parenting forums. Some neurotypical parents of autistic children – not as many as I’d like, really – are keen to hear from autistic people when it comes to understanding their children’s neurotype and their experiences of the world. Even better when that autistic person is also a parent.
Sometimes, to be completely honest, answering questions from neurotypical parents can be tiring. And no one likes to be treated, as the saying goes, like “a traveling zoo exhibit.” But mostly, when it’s done respectfully, I appreciate that parents want to get the autistic point of view on issues that their children might be dealing with, feelings they might be experiencing, decisions that must be made, and so on. After all, no one knows more about being autistic than autistic people. People who understand that are more than halfway there when it comes to respectfully parenting autistic children.
We can tell you why meltdowns happen and what to do when they happen. We can give you many many examples of sensory processing differences. We can describe what it’s like to have exposure anxiety. We can tell you what we wished our parents or teachers or schools had done when we were children.
There is one thing, though, I don’t think I’ve said before and would like neurotypical parents to know: you don’t have to understand everything.
You don’t have to know exactly what another person is thinking or experiencing in order to support them. Empathy doesn’t always mean that you fully understand why someone feels the way they do – often it can mean that you simply understand that they are feeling that way and be respectful of whatever they need at the moment. Trust fills in the gaps where knowledge leaves off: you may not know why they can’t do something, but you trust that their reasons are valid.
Even though I am autistic, I don’t always know exactly what’s wrong when my autistic son is upset, or exactly how things feel for him. I probably have an easier time than a neurotypical parent would in understanding things like sensory overload and communication difficulties, but we are individuals. Some things are markedly different between us: he often enjoys the energy of a crowd, while I always shy away from that. He loves white noise while I abhor it (thank you noise canceling headphones!). No two people experience the world in exactly the same way, no matter whether they share a neurotype or not.
I understand why you wish you could get inside your child’s head and see the world the way they see it. You feel that way sometimes because you love them and want to know them better. But you don’t need to understand everything they think and feel to be able to parent effectively, make good decisions, and love your child. Respect, empathy, and trust are the main ingredients in a healthy neurodiverse family.