Autistic Parenting: Parenthood in it’s infancy
This article was co-authored by David Gray-Hammond and Katie Munday
When Katie and I set out to write today, we knew we wanted to do something new. While there has been a great deal of discussion around parenting school-age Autistic children, Katie and I are both parents to younger children and feel that there is somewhat of a void in discussions around the early years or parenting an infant.
We do not position ourselves as experts, this is more of a journey into our own discoveries, the experiences we have, and sharing in the joys and struggles that so many Autistic people experience as they grow into parenthood.
“Nothing quite prepares you for parenthood, no matter how organised you are and how much the baby was planned.
The late nights, the interrupted sleep, the constant feeding and nappy changing, and the emotions of it all!”
Being Autistic and a parent is a unique and wonderful challenge. It represents a leap into unknown territory, and requires us to ask the question of how we would like to have been parented.
What is it like to parent an infant as an Autistic person?
At times being a parent can feel very surreal. There can be a disconnect between the reality of your child’s existence, and the realisation that you have created that child. Many people speak of having an instant bond with their child, but for many of us it can take time to feel that deeper connection. This doesn’t make us bad parents, it makes us human beings who are processing the reality that we are personally responsible for another living being.
Whether you are a biological parent, or a foster or adoptive parent/carer, it can take time to process the reality of parenthood; you now have another human being who looks to you for survival, protection, and love. This love does not always come easily. Especially after a traumatic birth, for parents living with post-natal depression (it doesn’t only affect those who give birth), and those who have had traumatic childhoods; which Autistic people experience at a significantly higher rate than non-Autistic people (Gray-Hammond & Adkin, 2021).
Besides the somewhat philosophical musings of love for your child, there are some technical challenges to being an Autistic parent to an infant.
“He’s just started the ‘terrible twos’ stage – awful name but you get what I mean – and he finds it hard when Daddy leaves for work. So, he throws himself down and makes these noises which prod and poke at my very soul.”
Sensory challenges are everywhere as an Autistic parent, there are noises, smells, and for some reason babies are permanently sticky. Where the hell does the stickiness come from? David in particular struggles with sticky things, it is a sensory challenge that turns his stomach. For David, stickiness can remain for days causing him to pick at his skin and repeatedly wash his hands. This is unsurprising given the intersection of OCD with Autistic experience (which David and Katie both share, more on this intersection here and here).
Nappy changes can also be quite upsetting for Autistic parents, issues around cleanliness, olfactory senses, and children who perhaps try to escape during nappy changes can result in a very overwhelming experience. The nappy changing experience can be increasingly exhausting, especially as infants reach an age where they can begin to move around. It is easy to be hard on yourself for being overwhelmed, particularly in a context where you have to “be the calm”.
On the topic of “being the calm”, it can be frustrating trying to demonstrate emotional regulation when it is not something you excel at yourself. Autistic parenting can leave you constantly dysregulated meaning that often you have to mask your struggles for the sake of your children. While neurotypical parents may also deal with this, we have to acknowledge the monotropic split (Adkin, 2022) that can arise from doing this constantly as an Autistic person.
There are a lot of aspects of parenting an infant we could discuss, but in order to give them the space they deserve, we will address them each in separate installments of this series. In the mean time, just be safe in the knowledge that Autistic parents everywhere have different strengths and struggles, and like many things, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being a parent/carer.