Parenting with an autistic partner can have its challenges. But having open conversations with your children and helping with everyday tasks can help.
Though parenting can be challenging and rewarding for all parents, autistic parents may face specific challenges related to their autism.
But autistic people can have children, and many do.
Parents on the spectrum can offer unique strengths to parenting. For instance, they may be better at sticking to routines and providing order for their child.
And if an autistic parent cares for a child on the autism spectrum, they may be better able to relate to and understand what makes them tick.
As research continues to shed light on how autism spectrum disorder (ASD) manifests, we now understand it better than ever. Many parents discover their autistic traits only after their child receives a diagnosis.
There’s significant diversity across the spectrum, so every parent will have unique traits and coping styles.
Below are general tips that you may consider to help you cope.
Rate your activities on a stress-meter
To help avoid burnout, take a weekly (or daily) inventory of your activities and rate how stressful various tasks are.
For instance, you can rate different types of housework, social activities, or personal hobbies on a scale of 1-10, with “1” being neutral or slightly stressful and “10” being extremely stressful.
You can then decide your limit for that day or week and try to organize your activities to stay under that limit.
Follow stressful activities with more relaxing ones
Continuing to avoid burnout, try to do something you enjoy after a particularly stressful activity.
For instance, if you took your child to a playdate, and it was a level 10 on the stress meter, consider making time for you and your child to do something you enjoy soon after. This might include watching a favorite movie together or working on a puzzle.
Have a set bedtime schedule
Getting your children on a set bedtime schedule will help you get better sleep. This is important as autistic people tend to get poorer sleep than neurotypicals.
Compared to neurotypical adults, autistic people had the following:
- more sleep disturbances
- longer sleep onset latencies (took longer time to fall asleep)
- poorer sleep efficiency (percentage of time sleeping while in bed)
- poorer refreshment scores upon waking in the morning
- more daytime sleepiness
This makes it even more important that autistic parents prioritize sleep to avoid fatigue and burnout.
Make mental health a priority
Don’t hesitate to see a licensed mental health professional regularly.
According to a large 2020 survey, 94% of autistic adults reported experiencing anxiety. Of those participants, almost six in 10 said that anxiety affects their ability to function in life. And two in three reported a clinical diagnosis of anxiety.
In addition, 83% reported having depression. And eight times as many autistic people reported feeling often or always lonely compared to the general population.
Add in the hard work and exhaustion of parenting, which could make you feel even more isolated, especially if you don’t have a strong support network – family or a close friend.
Discuss your diagnosis with your child
It’s good to talk openly about your diagnosis with your child — and if your child is ASD, use your experiences to discuss their diagnosis. Share both the challenges and positives of ASD.
One study from 2021 found that when discussing the child’s autism diagnosis, both autistic and non-autistic parents share certain similarities:
- The importance of being open and honest about the diagnosis.
- The diagnosis should be discussed as early as possible.
- Discussions should center around each child’s needs.
- The challenges of autism shouldn’t be overlooked.
- It’s important to focus on the positive aspects as well.
Differences between autistic and non-autistic parents include the following:
- Autistic parents used personal experiences in conversations about autism, which may increase their children’s understanding and empathy.
- Autistic parents focused on more positive parts of autism.
- Autistic parents didn’t express concerns that these talks could have negative consequences, such as making kids more anxious.
- Autistic parents didn’t desire or need professional support to talk about autism with their children. Rather they felt confident in their knowledge and experiences.
You can do several things to help your autistic partner avoid burnout. Here are a few tips to consider if you’re co-parenting with a partner on the spectrum.
Try to avoid surprises. Many autistic individuals thrive on routine and get anxious when this routine is disturbed or when they’re faced with last-minute changes.
If plans have to change — e.g., your child is having a friend over on Tuesday instead of Friday as originally planned —tell your partner as soon as possible to give them ample time to process the change.
Compared to non-autistic adults, those with autism have a much higher intolerance to uncertainty, and research suggests that uncertainty is a significant contributor to anxiety.
Offer to do that chore they hate
One cause of burnout for many autistic parents is keeping up with household chores. Researchers gave an anonymous online survey to 325 autistic and 91 non-autistic mothers in 2016 to describe various aspects of parenting.
Among the findings, autistic mothers reported greater difficulties coping with multitasking and domestic responsibilities.
Consider taking charge of the chores your partner dislikes to help avoid burnout.
Make sure you’re verbally direct with your partner. Try not to assume they know what you need based on body language or vague expressions.
For instance, if you’re on a road trip and you want to stop at a rest stop and stretch your legs, don’t just say “My legs are so sore.” Ask directly if you can stop and walk around for a while.
If you see your partner having difficulty, take the reins
Though this applies to anyone who’s co-parenting, it’s especially important to help your autistic partner when you see that they need a break.
If the kids are acting up and your partner needs a break, offer to take the kids to the park and let them have alone time.
Be patient when things don’t move quickly
Many autistic individuals experience “autistic inertia,” meaning it can feel difficult to shift gears – e.g., starting a new task or stopping one that’s been ongoing.
This can make it difficult for your partner to make a decision or give a tendency for nearly “paralyzing” perfectionism.
Some autistic individuals will avoid engaging in certain activities for fear of being unable to break away when they want to.
2021 research suggests this type of inertia may be attributable, at least in part, to differences in motor control.
If your partner is having difficulty deciding where your child will go to school next year, or even just whether or not to take a shower that day, give them time and perhaps gently help them move in the right direction through kind words.
If you’re experiencing heightened stress related to co-parenting, consider seeking mental health support.
Parenting is a wonderful and challenging task for everyone. But for parents on the spectrum, certain aspects of parenting may be particularly challenging.
Be sure to engage in plenty of self-care, and don’t hesitate to seek help.
Consider joining a support group for other adults or parents on the spectrum. It can be overwhelmingly helpful to share stories with others going through similar experiences.