Autistic Parenting in Public

I wrote a parenting twitter thread today. The issue of public parenting came up and I have some issues with how our society views small children in public as well as generally, so I tweeted about how I handled the issue of parenting publicly with small (mostly Autistic) children, as an Autistic parent myself.

The things I’ve done with my children are also an excellent way to “re-parent” yourself if, as an Autistic child, you were subjected to unrealistic and punitive expectations from your own parents (as I was). You don’t need to be a parent to potentially benefit from reading this.

There are multiple legitimate issues here. One is a competing needs issue when Autistic adults struggle to be around loud children, it’s not fun. I have experienced this myself. Many times. It’s painful and distressing.

But calling for additional parental “control” of children is usually what follows these legitimate complaints and I just cannot support that at all.

Trying to “control” another person is an unhealthy relationship dynamic.

I don’t care who that other person is, they aren’t you, and you cannot control another person. It will only be frustrating and/or damaging to try.

I have never tried to “control” my children and I’ve rarely had issues with them in public (despite some of them being very Autistic themselves).

Another important and legitimate issue is happy vocal stims. Those are not what I’m talking about when I say I leave public spaces with my children when they become disruptive. When we leave public spaces it’s because my children are out of control, distressed, and/or overwhelmed.

Situations of distress and overwhelm can be handled without any abusive therapies and almost always without prolonging the child’s distress by staying in the stressful situation.

Of course, it probably helped that I didn’t (still don’t!) want to stay in shops any longer than absolutely necessary either. We didn’t have money for babysitters and my children weren’t diagnosed yet (because we didn’t have insurance or money) so I had to go with what worked for everyone without costing anything extra.

No respite care. No family nearby. Nothing.

This is how we did it.

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We always tried to go places when the children were well-rested and recently fed. Low blood sugar and tiredness can make everything seem more difficult and overwhelming for children as well as adults.

I’d minimize how many public places we went in a day (like one or two, at the very most) and reevaluate going a second place based on how well everyone was doing after the first place.

Allowing recovery time between outings has always been vital too.

We’d leave immediately if the children became disruptive and unable to cope with a situation. Immediately meaning, out the door leaving an abandoned shopping cart if need be. Sometimes we could manage checking out quickly, but other times it was an immediate “end mission” situation.

We did things beforehand to help prepare the children for whatever situation they might encounter.

Before every single public appearance I would talk to my children about behavior expectations — with demonstrations and practice at home.

“Practice” here means play-acting through likely scenarios in fun ways, not repetitive abusive “training” a la ABA. We did a lot of acting through scenarios that either had been or could potentially be difficult for my children.

I’d also explain ahead of time what our purpose in going there was. This included whether they’d be getting anything for themselves or not, which was very important to go over ahead of time.

Most of the time we literally had NO extra spending money when they were small and it would’ve been so upsetting for them to only just find that out in the store when they asked for something, easily leading to horrible upset and meltdown.

When my children got overwhelmed and lost the plot they knew they’d be going to a safe calm car for comfort and recovery, not for punishment.

We did a lot of necessary shopping in the middle of the night too.

When they were small our children stayed up late with us and slept in so we’d get groceries at night when there were fewer people and dimmer lights. I know that isn’t an option for everyone (we’ve always had very flexible hours), but if possible it can help SO much!

My children know they can move however they want as long as they stay next to us or (when small) rode in the cart.

I explained and modeled, before every single time we went out in public, why they couldn’t run around and into people.

Reminders reminders reminders. Every time! Children need reminders of situational rules and expectations, no matter what their neurology is. And remind every time until they know the expectations and can consistently remember.

Reminders every time may be a lifelong need for some people and that is FINE. I often still need to remind myself of situational expectations before going places that aren’t part of my usual routine.

My children knew what behaviors would cause us to leave, so it wasn’t a surprise when we left and we rarely had to leave because they were rested, fed, prepared, etc.

I began including them in deciding when to go to the store as they got to be 3+ years old & could communicate better.

“Do you feel okay to go shopping?” with a head nod or shake in response was more than sufficient.

Asking helps! When the children have even just a little input in our schedule and plans, they are more likely to be able to handle the plans.

Also, my children have always known that they will be listened to if the plans end up being unmanageable for them!

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None of the above are perfect solutions. A more perfect solution would be a society that’s more accepting and less ableist, but I never felt like I had to “control” my children because I instead did my best to teach them to control themselves in manageable chunks and supported them in doing so as much as possible.

Really, there should be parent training.

Teach parents how to be respectful of their children’s needs and how to give clear expectations so the child isn’t confused and off-balance all the time.

All of the above worked well for my non-autistic children too.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. Any of these ideas can be adapted for various families’ needs and hopefully will provide a good starting point for folks who need to brainstorm ways to help their own children (or themselves!) cope better with being in public spaces or any other potentially overwhelming situations.

3 thoughts on “Autistic Parenting in Public

  1. Excellent post and advices, it’s good to know that we are not alone in this struggle in a NTworld and that some amazing people like you are doing a wonderful and so important work to write posts about this! Thank you so much! Wish you all the best, Greetings from France!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yeah, I never understood the “control your little human beings” approach to parenting. And left many a store because a child lost it. Getting them away from the stressful situation and to a place they can calm down and regain control as well as limiting the impact their volume might have on others always made sense to us. But then, my partner has extremely sensitive hearing, so was always concerned about how hard it would be on other people. (She had earplugs or tissue for her ears always ready if needed.) I can see they aren’t common sense approaches to most people, but I’ve never understood why. And I’ve railed elsewhere about how most adults don’t truly see children as human beings. Thanks for posting this!

    Liked by 1 person

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