The stereotypical autist is supposed to be (male) lacking in empathy, and therefore, struggling with intimate relationships such as partnership, friendship, and, of course, parenting. Yet for me, the picture is far more complicated. In many ways, I have an over-abundance of empathy, something which can get in the way of practical relationships by making me overwhelmed with emotions which I struggle to regulate. But as a parent, autism has been both a blessing and a curse. Let me explain.
I was listening recently to a podcast on parenting teenagers, and I was baffled once again by the parental figure expressing difficulty with parenting teens because the parent wanted to give solutions and advice to all the teenage problems. I encountered this with other parents when my own children were teenagers, and it baffled me equally then. When my children came to me with problems, I very rarely gave advice to them. This wasn’t because I was holding back on offering advice. It was because I had no idea what suggestions to offer because I had never had any experience like theirs. In fact, it became a joke that Mom “never gives advice.”
It has only been in retrospect that I see how autistic this was of me (I wasn’t diagnosed until late into my children’s teenage years). Because of the way my mind works so literally, and because of my own social disabilities, I didn’t easily see how my own experiences might be translated into something that would be similar to my children. I also didn’t know how to guide them in a whole variety of social problems from finding friendship to dealing with problem teachers. Another joke in the family was how often I would “tell a story” instead of giving advice. I sometimes had an idea that my story might be related to my childrens’ experiences, but I wasn’t sure it was very direct.
I can also see in retrospect that there were a handful of situations in which I directly gave my children advice. I just didn’t think of it as “advice.” I thought of it as “information,” because I only did this when I felt like I was an expert in a particular area (ie if it was one of my special interests). If one of my kids needed a plan for running a marathon or a triathlon, I was eager to help write one up. I was also happy to sit around and chat about heart rate data, what to do if you felt sluggish, how to recover from a race, and so on. Because I was a competitive, nationally ranked triathlete and I was very confident in my ability to impart “information.”
I was also a nationally published writer of both novels and essays, so when it came time for my kids to write essays for high school or college classes, for AP tests, or for college applications, I felt like I knew exactly what to tell them to do. (I never wrote a word for them, but I would treat their work as if it were a professional task to edit and critique it) and hand them back an essay covered in red ink or with giant sections cut out entirely. I’m not sure my children always appreciated my blunt professional attitude to their writing problems, but they did all get into good colleges.
Parenting as an autist has meant that I do some things very, very well, and some things terribly. Which is to say it’s pretty much like everything else I do as an autist. When my first child got married and I had to play “mother of the bride,” I was terrible at most of the social obligations this came with. I was terrible at offering advice about what wedding gown made her looks great or what flowers she should choose to go with her colors. I was terrible at greeting people at the ceremony. What I was good at? Running numbers and some of the organizing. And also, just being in awe of how beautiful she was and how gloriously it all turned out.