How to think like a therapist as a parent of an autistic child
Any parent will be used to a small amount of frustration, improvisation - and a significant dose of getting things wrong! But for parents of autistic children, the increased sense of responsibility can feel overwhelming at times. The good news is that by adjusting our thinking we can begin to view our children’s behaviour - and our own responsibility - in a different light.
You don’t have to be a therapist to think like one. Nor do you have to detach yourself entirely from the personal nature of parenting. Naturally, you might struggle and take some things to heart. But we can make small steps to adjust our mindset. As a result, our children will benefit, and we will too.
Listen with no expectation
One of the most important roles a therapist plays is that of a listening ear. Autistic children can often go through an entire school day feeling like no one is listening to them. Their emotion can build up even more due to reduced or confusing body signals. When they get home, they want to be heard. Whether they express their emotion in a few mumbled words or through a meltdown, the core need is the same.
Therapists are trained to listen without displaying shock or offence. But as a parent, we can get upset by what our children say, and understandably so. Sometimes we just really want them to apologise. It's not easy, but if we can put these feelings aside, we can listen and meet the real need that our child has in that moment.
Listening with no expectations, just to hear what our children are saying, can be very powerful. It affirms who they are and how they feel, without necessarily condoning how they are expressing it. Those conversations can come later. Before anything else, our children need someone to hear them.
Know what you can and can’t control
Therapists know what they cannot control and what they can. It's often a parental sense of responsibility that leads us to try to fix our child’s behaviour or improve their mood. But when we focus on these things we cannot control, we miss the opportunity to do what we can control.
When we see our child struggling, we can sometimes ask too many questions, perhaps because we want to know what is going on so we can fix it. But this can increase a child’s stress in the moment. Therapists create an environment in which it feels safe to share. Instead of asking a lot of questions, we can - by adapting a therapist’s approach - create a space for our children to open up freely.
Empathise and share
Empathy is at the core of all thriving relationships. For our children, it can be a game-changer. Therapists have learned this. They know how important it is to say things like, “I can see you are upset - that must have been really tough.” Recognising and affirming our children’s emotions lets them know that they have value.
Therapists know when sharing from personal experience will affirm a child’s experience. Likewise, we can affirm how they feel by empathising and saying something like, “I found school hard too.” This helps children to feel they are not weird or defective or alone. That we understand what it is like. They are like us and we are like them.
No matter what you or your child are struggling with, we have tools to help. If you want to speak to someone confidentially, our specialist triage team clinicians are here to link you to the right support with clinicians who can unlock change.