I have found that there’s this idea in modern parenting that leads to a great deal of what I’d call “unnecessary consistencies.” The idea is basically that if children do something childish or inappropriate then they’ll forever be doing it. Or, conversely, that if they aren’t doing something that will eventually become necessary for them to do then they’ll never do it. This belief seems to discount the fact that all children grow and learn and have different needs at different times in their lives.
This got a little long so I summed up my main points at the end 🙂
As an Autistic parent, I’ve always tried to follow my children’s leads. As a new parent I read a great deal about child development, how children learn, attachment theory, biological norms for humans, etc and came to the conclusion that I should trust my children and follow their leads when it came to what they were ready to learn and what they could handle doing.
I’m not sure how much of my openness to that came from my own experiences of being not-believed by the adults in my life, but regardless it has worked quite well so far.
Until recently I hadn’t really thought about why following my children’s lead about what they can handle works so well, but when I look at my own life I can see this:
When I allow myself to respect my needs when possible, I’m more able to follow uncomfortable social customs in the times when I find it socially necessary or beneficial for me to do them.
I’ll give some examples. I’m giving clothing examples because wearing clothing is a legal issue, even with tiny children, in the US where I live. So this is even an issue that often matters legally. What I say is even more true with Autistic behaviors like stimming or communication styles that don’t create any legal issues or harm to others.
I don’t wear “regular clothes” while at home. My summer “house clothes” are boxer shorts and a loose tank top. These aren’t things that I’d feel comfortable wearing out in public, but because I don’t wear regular clothes at home, I can more easily manage wearing more socially acceptable clothing when I need or want to.
When I support myself in this way, I have more energy in reserve. If I forced myself to wear, say, a *bra all day long then I’d be melting down much more frequently, but if I only put one on for a couple hours to go out somewhere on rare occasions it’s not really a huge deal. Mostly I try to find comfortable clothing that’s also socially acceptable, but even that kind of clothing can sap my energy if I wear it for too long.
If, for some sadistic reason, my counterpart decided that I needed to be dressed at home the same way I am when I leave the house, my life would be pretty miserable. I would not be able to handle that. The whole “cleaning the house wearing high heels and pearls” thing would not work for me.
I naturally applied the reasoning behind my own needs to parenting my children even before I knew anything about autism or that any of us were Autistic. As a result my children have always had the freedom to choose to do and wear what makes them most comfortable when we’re at home, as long as they aren’t harming anyone else, just as I do. This is true even if it’s a thing that would be socially inappropriate to leave the house wearing or to do outside the home.
In my experience, supporting my children’s needs gives them the energy and reserves to better manage in situations where there aren’t accommodations and where they do have to follow certain rules and guidelines that aren’t easy for them to follow.
Forcing Autistic children to do distressing things that don’t even matter in the privacy of their own home is likely to set them up for exhaustion and overload, unnecessarily, and it won’t help them learn about the importance of respecting their needs or of creating supports to help themselves be more independent and functional later in life.
For example: I never acclimated to wearing a bra all day long even though I did it for years. Now I only wear one when I can manage it and think it would be socially helpful to wear one (say, during an initial meeting with a potential client). I don’t wear one the rest of the time just so I can “get used to it” for those times when it might be beneficial. That kind of consistency is not logical at all.
Rather, Autistic children need to be supported in knowing when it’s acceptable (and legal) to strip off their uncomfortable clothes versus when they really need to hang on just a bit longer until they’re somewhere safe and private where they know they can recover and be themselves in peace.
It is important for Autistic children to learn and understand that there are different expectations and rules for different places and different times. I believe that allowing and encouraging inconsistencies is vital for teaching this concept.
We’re often more able to follow important rules when we’ve had appropriate self-care and recovery during the times when it’s not important. We’re often more able to follow the important rules when we know that there’s a deadline and that we can, for example, take off the less comfortable clothes in around 10 minutes when we arrive back home and walk through the door.
To sum up:
Believe your child when they let you know that they can’t handle something! A meltdown is communication. It is communicating that the person is in distress for some reason or other. Please listen!
Allow and encourage your children to be themselves and get the support they need while also not breaking any laws or putting anyone in danger. It is a vital life skill to know when inconsistencies and self-care methods are appropriate and beneficial.
Follow their lead and get their input – this does not have to be spoken input.
Reject the idea that if your child doesn’t do x at home or by a certain age then they won’t ever be able to do x in other places when it matters. It may be that getting a break at home is the only reason they will ever be able to do x at all.
Be extremely clear when explaining the reasoning behind social norms and rules. We often have an easier time following these seemingly pointless and often uncomfortable rules when we know that there’s at least some reason behind them and what it is.
*I don’t think that bras should ever be considered necessary by anyone other than the person choosing to wear said bra, but it’s a very convenient example as relates to my personal experience of being an occasionally bra-wearing Autistic adult along with the social expectation in my area being very much “people with breasts wear bras in public.”