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The Power of Affirming Parenting for Autistic Children: My Top 8 Tips

As a caregiver to an autistic or otherwise neurodivergent (ND) child, your days may be filled with therapies and advocacy, and your nights are often filled with worry. Mixed messages on outcomes, best practices, the most effective strategies, and the best approaches to discipline are everywhere you look. So how can you set your child on the best path to be the happiest and healthiest that they can be? And how can you help them love themselves as much as you love them?

All ND children will struggle with barriers in school, in their social life, in their careers, in their relationships. Having a brain with a different operating system can be exhausting, and many facets of modern life are not friendly to neurodivergent needs and preferences. As a parent, you want to set your child up for as much success as they can achieve. The best tools you can give your ND child are self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-advocacy. All of that starts with YOU and the messages you send them every day!

Take a moment and think of the messages that an autistic or ADHD child hears every day when they are moving through a world of neurotypical (NT) expectations. Quiet down, sit still, leave that alone, stop bugging your sister, just eat your dinner, don't talk about Pokemon too much, look me in the eye when I'm talking to you! Many of the behaviors that are often criticized and singled out, are natural expressions of a brain that works and processes a little differently than many of its peers.

As parents or caregivers, our voices and our words often become the loudest ones that our young people will hear internally. Our belief in our children will fuel their confidence. Our defense and validation support their ability to advocate for themselves. And our safe and non-judgmental help will help build young adults who are capable of thinking through a problem and leaning on their resources. So how do you support this in a child who is neurodivergent, and maybe facing a lot more struggles than neurotypical kids? Read on for my list of my top 8 strategies to create happy and confident kids.

  1. Listen to and Learn From ND Creators. If you are only learning about autism from Autism $peaks, or about ADHD from a nutritionist who claims to cure it through diet, you will be hearing - and absorbing! - a lot of negative and fear-based information and language. Learn instead from autistic parents, ADHD physicians, therapists with lived experience, and others who have a lifetime of firsthand knowledge and expertise. Pay attention to the language they use about themselves and others.

  2. Believe Your Child. So much of the ND experience is being gaslit your whole life when you are struggling. Stop making a fuss, the lights aren't that bright, no the toaster does not make a noise when it's plugged in, your socks are fine, you're being picky for no reason! Often when a child is struggling with an expectation, whether that's homework, a new food, or hygiene, there is a sensory issue or a lagging skill that truly makes it hard. And if there is a sensory input that your child is hypersensitive to, don't assume they are being dramatic.

  3. Look Beyond Behaviors. In that same vein, a child who is having a meltdown is often experiencing distress on several different fronts. Step back and take a look at your child's last few hours or days. Are there any tough sensory experiences? Unexpected demands? High-stress situations at school? Instead of doubling down on your child needing to pull themselves together and apologize, get curious and try to work past your frustration to get to the bottom of the issue. Feeling understood will help your child be so much less frustrated.

  4. Learn About the Sensory Systems. So much of an ND child's differences from their peers have to do with how they process and experience the world around them. Do you know that we have more than 5 senses, and that ND individuals often have over- or under-sensitivity in some or all of their sensory systems? Learning your child's specific sensory needs can guide you in many kinds of accommodations and help you avoid those big triggers.

  5. Pick Your Battles. Arguing takes up time and energy, and can really harm the relationship between caregiver and child. How important is it really that she's wearing socks, that he only gets 30 minutes of screen time, that they wear jeans and not sweatpants? Whose ideas and expectations are you catering to, and does this ask or demand really support your child other than helping them "fit in?" Who benefits from dying on this hill?

  6. Learn Co-Regulation. The bond between caregiver and child is an amazing thing. We as humans have nervous systems that are attuned to the bodies and brains of the people around us, and their bodies physically influence ours! Your body is sending out tiny electrical signals and cues about your heart rate, stress levels, and sense of safety all the time. These are a hugely powerful influence on our children - just think about soothing a crying baby. You still have that ability even as your child gets older, and you can really help them snap out of some big reactions with your own sense of calm.

  7. Shift the Responsibility. Really take a look at the expectations that your child has on them every day, and who is responsible for making it happen. Is your ADHD second grader expected to realize when they need a movement break? Does the speech therapist tell your child that they need to make sure to talk about things that their friends like? Is grandma not willing to cook a separate safe food for your kid at the holiday, even when it means they might not eat at all?

  8. Be the Safe Space. As caregivers, we often think that we need to prepare a child for "the real world" by holding them to high and rigid standards at home just like they are in school, work, or other structured environments. Trust me, your child knows this. How would it feel to not have a safe space to really unwind, take off your mask (both literal and metaphorical), and not stress about what other people are thinking of you? Love and support your child as they are, even the tough bits, even the things that might get them bullied, even the things that drive you nuts. Let them be kids, and let them be themselves.

Being an affirming caregiver means sending positive messages to your child about who they are and their place in the world. Kids need to know that they deserve to be respected and loved for who they are, and that their needs matter too. If you take the time to validate and support your child through their toughest moments, strive to understand their experiences of the world, and love them as they are, your child will come to you for help and trust you with the tough stuff.

In addition, exploring a more flexible and affirming parenting approach will create a happier and calmer household. You and your child will both feel less frustrated and misunderstood, and you will understand how to more effectively advocate for your child outside the home. All of this is a journey that you and your child are on together, so hold their hand and take those first steps beside them as someone who is also learning. I promise, you will see a world of difference.

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