Sometimes I hear stories about parents feeling guilty about their kid’s autism, thinking that they caused it somehow. They look at their autistic kid and they feel sad and they think “it’s my fault that you’re having a hard time.”
I’m writing for these parents today.
I know you are coming from a place of love. I know you are scared because you think life is going to be difficult for your child and you can’t bear the thought of them suffering.
The truth is that punishing yourself will not help your child. Hurting yourself, even if it’s just with angry thoughts or shameful thoughts, isn’t healthy for you. And when you harm yourself, you take away from your ability to raise your child.
As an autistic person, I am big on logic, so I will now outline my logical argument on why are allowed to let it go.
- Autism is mostly genetic, anyway.
- Autism is not the worst-case scenario here.
- Blame is a waste of time.
- Acceptance is good for your child.
Sit with me a little, and see if it makes sense to you.
Autism is mostly genetic.
Researchers now believe that around 80% of autism is determined by DNA. That means it is something you can’t control at all.
Why would you blame yourself for something that’s completely out of your control?
You had a simple choice: have kids or don’t have kids. You chose having kids. You gave your child the incredible gift of life. And I’m betting that’s something you don’t regret.
I’m personally very glad that my parents decided to have children. I prefer existence to nonexistence.
You created someone precious. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that’s a bad thing.
As for the other 20%? It’s not well understood.
Autism isn’t the worst result of your options.
I know people in the big world out there love to play the blame game. Vaccines, antidepressants, milk, and all kinds of things have been supposedly linked to autism, often thanks to a single small or even fraudulent study.
- Were you exposed to chemicals at work? Thank you for working hard to ensure a financially secure future for your children.
- Did you use antidepressants during pregnancy? Thank you for taking care of your mental health so you could be the best possible parent you could.
- Did you consume milk, water from bottles, processed foods, caffeinated drinks, non-organic food, and other food or drinks during pregnancy? Thank you for feeding yourself and keeping hydrated so you could stay healthy and strong for your baby and your own well-being.
- Did you get a c-section? Thank you for doing your best in a complicated situation.
- Did you vaccinate your child? Thank you for protecting them from serious diseases and increasing their chances of survival. And thank you for building community immunity that protects other people’s children too.
People are linking just about everything to autism nowadays. Trying to keep up with it all is just going to eat away at your time and your sense of well-being.
I would rather be autistic than unvaccinated and at risk of fatal illness. I’d rather be autistic and born via c-section than have my mom and/or myself be permanently harmed or killed by a risky birth situation. I’d rather be autistic than have my mom be depressed or obsessing and punishing herself over endless lists of likely-useless ways to “protect” me.
(And a lot of these aren’t true of me anyway. I wasn’t born via c-section, my mom didn’t ingest caffeine or SSRIs during pregnancy, neither parent was exposed to any notable chemicals, and I still ended up autistic.)
And you know what? It doesn’t even matter, because autism is already a fact of life and there’s no going back and undoing it.
Blame wastes time.
Autism is already here. It is me, thinking and feeling and behaving and struggling and blooming. You’ve discovered it about your child too.
I’d like to select a saying from my idiom book now: “there’s no use crying over spilled milk.”
Re-imagining the past will not help you. You did the best you could at the time with the resources that you had. You tried, you did your best, and now it’s done.
The next time you start thinking about feeling ashamed and angry at yourself, I would like for you to select an alternative activity. Here are some ideas:
- Play with your child
- Make yourself a warm drink and then enjoy it
- Do a quick chore on your to-do list and then smile at the list because it’s shorter now
- Take a nice shower
- Talk with your child about their special interest
- Call up or go talk to someone you love
- Clean up a mess that has been bugging you and then admire the results
- List 3 nice things about your child and 3 nice things about yourself
I think all of these activities are useful and good. There is value in taking care of your child. There is value in taking care of your home. There is value in taking care of yourself.
There is no value in regretting past actions that probably didn’t really do anything all that bad.
My parents are intelligent, caring, thoughtful people. They went way above and beyond when I was a fetus and a baby. I still turned out autistic. It happens to good parents and it doesn’t mean anything bad about you.
I hope Mom doesn’t blame herself for one second. I hope Dad doesn’t blame himself for one second. I love them and I want them to feel happy and at peace with the way I am. I want them to know I have never blamed them for doing their best.
My guess is that most of my readers still have young kids, kids who may not have strong communication skills yet and may not discuss things with great emotional depth. But my guess is that if you could talk to your child’s older self, they would say about the same thing as I just did.
You don’t need to blame yourself.
Acceptance helps your child.
And if you’re not convinced already, then act out of love for your child.
Which story would you rather have your child start telling yourself?
- “Mommy/Daddy blames thinks autism is their fault. Autism is something that’s bad about me. I see them watching me with sad eyes sometimes and I must make them sad. Maybe it’s my fault.”
- “Mommy/Daddy says that autism makes me different in my brain. It’s why I have a hard time sometimes and it also makes me smart, helpful, and passionate (which I think means something good). They say they love my beautiful weird brain.”
Kids pick up on parental attitudes. They do this more than you realize. They will hear the word “autism” sometime and it will be connected to a story in their mind. I bet you want the story to be a happy one.
Changing your internal story
I get that acceptance can be hard sometimes, especially if you’re scared or uncertain or confused. And if you blame yourself, you might have a hard time stopping.
So, for your first step, try thinking about yourself and your parenting skills in a neutral way:
- “I am an ordinary parent.”
- “All parents make mistakes sometimes.”
- “I’m doing a decent job at this.”
- “It’s normal to feel frustrated and overwhelmed sometimes.”
- “I know I’m not perfect. I don’t think I’m terrible either. I’m just doing my best.”
Interrupt the mean voice in your head with thoughts like those. Sometimes, you might also need to work on thoughts like these about autism or your child.
- “Autism isn’t what I expected. It’s also not the worst-case scenario.”
- “Yes, my child’s behavior can be challenging to me. They’re also loving, funny, and unique.”
- “It may be tempting to blame myself, my child, or autism. But instead I can focus on how to make this situation better for myself and my child.”
- “I have bad days sometimes. So does my kid. They are probably doing their best just like I am.”
- “The bad days can make it hard to remember that good days exist too. However difficult it is right now, I know that better days will come.”
You don’t have to love every aspect of autism or every part of your day. Nobody does that. (I sure don’t!)
Taking a time-out and interrupting your thought spiral is just one step you can take for keeping yourself balanced. If you step back and re-center yourself, your child will notice and they might start doing the same thing one day.
Finding the good
There is always some good somewhere, even on the worst days. The question isn’t whether it exists. It’s whether you will notice it.
And you won’t, not always. (After all, you’re human.) But to make your life a little happier, you can work on trying.
Goodness can look like a lot of things.
- Your kid singing along with a favorite song, captured in the joy of what they’re doing
- Beautiful cloud formations in the sky
- Your partner bringing something for you
- Your child stimming peacefully, giving you a chance to do something productive or relaxing
- A friend answering your message
- The family pet saying hello
- Your child learning a new social skill from a video
- You taking a moment to be kind to yourself
Look for these things. Remember them. Savor them. They are here for you.
They help you feel like a human being.
It’s worth it.
Guilt is a cage that locks you away from your life. You can waste away in there. And your child will watch and worry and maybe start building a cage of their own.
Maybe you spent a long time being in the cage. Maybe it even has started to feel safer than the world out there, the world full of sunshine and storms. Maybe you built it so strong and tough that you’re forgetting what the world used to be.
You are a human. Humans don’t belong in cages. Humans are supposed to be free.
Stop building the cage. Take some deep breaths. And see if you can start breaking yourself free.
The real world is grass on your feet and sun in your eyes and a wind that sometimes bites. The real world is autism and meltdowns and happy stims and people who don’t get it and people who do. The real world is where your child is.
Your child needs you.
And you need to be free.