Having an autistic child brings with it many challenges. In a world geared for the most part towards neurotypical people, your child’s perspective can be hard to understand and some of their behaviours aren’t always easy to handle.
But if you’re going through the diagnosis process at the moment, it’s important to know that it’s not only about the challenges and difficulties - in fact, having a child with ASD can have some surprising upsides.
“I don’t think it’s any harder if your child is autistic, it’s just different,” says Rae Britton, a member of the Clinical Partners team and mum to 17-year-old Leo, who has ASD. “Any child teaches you so much and that’s a really positive thing.
“Leo’s so much fun, he’s so funny, so witty. And he doesn’t care what other people think. Where I might worry about, I don’t know, eating a piece of cake and whether people will judge me for being greedy, he just doesn’t care. Sometimes he teaches me what’s really important.”
We are all learning about our children from the day they are born. We are also finding out much about ourselves through the new lens of ‘parent’. Any child will cause you to re-evaluate aspects of your life, make difficult decisions and enact radical change. Having an autistic child just intensifies this process.
“It makes you much better at appreciating what people want,” says Rae. “I’d say I’m a pretty empathetic person anyway but what I learned with having Leo was that it’s not about what I thought was right for him, it was about teaching him to find his own voice, asking him what was right for him, listening to him and advocating for that.”
The need to fight to create a space for your autistic child in the world is ongoing but in return you may find that you’re given a surprising amount of empathy back.
“Leo struggles with physical cues about how I’m feeling but if I can explain what’s going on to him he will really take that on board,” says Rae. “He’s very loving and quite protective and I think a lot of ASD children are like that. If you can explain what you’re feeling, they really feel it on that deep level.”
One thing you’ll no doubt already know if you have an autistic child or one who is going through the diagnosis process is that autistic children are prone to having very intense interests.
An autistic child’s perpetual search for the deeper truth behind the things that fascinate them can sometimes be overwhelming. You may be bombarded with questions about things you never imagined having to discuss in minute detail. The wiring in your house. The bus timetable. The many thousands of species of woodlouse that exist in the world.
These may not be subjects you’d naturally gravitate to yourself but throw yourself into it and you’ll not only find you learn a lot, but you’ll have plenty of fun along the way.
“Dinosaurs, oh my goodness, Leo loved dinosaurs!” says Rae. “He knew all about them, when they lived, where they lived. He wanted to sort out the boxes where they were kept so they were in the right historical time order. He’d say, ‘Mummy, these two dinosaurs would never have met!’ If you get on board with that, it’s really so much fun and you learn so much.”
This love of learning that is so often a characteristic of children with ASD can be a real advantage when it comes to their education. The trick is to help their teachers understand what they need in order to thrive within traditional education. In fact, Rae trained to be a teacher in order to help her son navigate his way through school.
“When he was little, Leo had a passion for numbers,” she remembers. “When I sent him to preschool they called me in because he wouldn’t count to 10. And I said, “That’s because he can count backwards from 100 in twos!’ It wasn’t that he wasn’t able, it’s just that counting to 10 was too easy.”
And in a rapidly changing world, the innovative way that autistic children approach even the simplest of things is likely to make them a real asset - as long as society is able to accommodate their needs.
“They’ve got very interesting problem solving skills and I think that’s going to be fantastic for the world,” says Rae. “They’re good at thinking outside the box - they’re not even near the box. Or they’ve turned the box upside down and they’re standing on it and using it to reach something else!”
Ultimately every child is unique and that goes for autistic children too. Yes, there are traits that they share but the spectrum is wide and each individual will have their own outlook and their own mix of behaviours.
You know your own child and will continue to get to know them as they grow and develop. Along the way you’ll learn how to help them be the best version of themselves as every parent does, and you’ll discover the surprisingly beautiful qualities that ASD brings to their personality.
Then it’s about helping the world to see those positive qualities and embrace rather than reject their differences. “Having an autistic child isn’t difficult in itself,” says Rae. “It’s where they meet the world and you have to advocate for them, that’s the real challenge.”
At Clinical Partners our specialist clinicians have years of experience supporting children and adults with autism, helping them to find the right support to unlock change. To find out more about what’s available, visit our autism hub, listen to the latest podcast in our autism masterclass series for parents or call the team on 0203 326 9160.