I’ve been thinking a lot about the parents of autistic children recently. Seeing I am one myself. And, in the way that I do, I’ve begun to notice patterns.
One of things I’ve noticed is the sheer amount of parents who recognised that they are autistic themselves via their child(ren)’s diagnosis. It seems to be a very common pathway to adult diagnosis. My own experience matches this. I found myself sitting in the assessment office, answering a questionnaire about my son, and thinking I could give the exact same answers about myself. And I hear this story, this lightbulb moment, over and over. These parents are the ones most likely to jump straight into autistic self-advocacy.
Another common pattern I have noticed is parents who come out with things like “I’m a bit quirky myself” or who notice similarities between their children’s experiences and their own childhoods. They haven’t had any sudden lightbulb moments, and either haven’t yet realised they’re autistic or are just not quite ready to acknowledge it yet. They may use phrases such as “slightly on the spectrum” as they explore the possibility that they are autistic. These parents need help and encouragement to do so, a gentle push as it were.
And then there are the parents who strongly insist that they are definitely not autistic. And yet…. I get the feeling that they are protesting too much. They are masking really heavily but I’m getting better at spotting when their mask slips. They are often very ableist, and often fall into the category of “Autism Parents”. I used to react very negatively to them, often recoiling from them. But these days I feel more open to trying to connect with them. I see them as lost souls, whose internalised ableist prevents them from ever accepting themselves. But there is still hope that, given time, this may change.
The above are examples of the vast majority of parents I come across who have at least one autistic child. I do occasionally encounter a parent who isn’t autistic in any way, shape or form. But if you dig deeper you find that the other parent of the child is. Or at the very least is neurodivergent in some way.
The vast majority of these parents are undiagnosed. I don’t believe that they need a diagnosis necessarily. But I do think that if they can recognise that they too are autistic, they will connect with their children better. And connect better with the autistic community. Their peers.
And if we, who are firmly planted in the autistic community, can stop and think “maybe this parent is autistic but doesn’t know it”, it might help us respond to them in a more compassionate way. Internalised ableism, fear and panic, are so much harder to deal with when you feel you are in a “us vs them” situation.
Recognising that most autistic children have at least one autistic parent may go a long way towards building an inclusive autistic community. Which ultimately helps us all.