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Ask an expert: Parenting, autistically

We were lucky enough to have Natalie back for another interview, this time to answer parenting-related questions submitted by our newsletter subscribers (sign up using the form at the bottom of the page if you’d like to receive our occasional newsletter!)

Natalie is a Speech and Language Therapist, based in the UK, with over 12 years of experience. She has kindly agreed to share her personal reflections, having worked with a wide range of autistic people and their families.

Your questions ranged from mental health to sensory overload to study strategies. Both from the side of parenting as an autistic adult, and parenting autistic children. We have tried to answer as many as possible. Some have been combined into one where the topics were very similar. We did have a few questions related to toileting - Natalie advised that those are best directed to a GP, Occupational Therapist, and/or school nurse.

So, here we go, Natalie’s Speech and Language Therapy take on your parenting conundrums!


Question 1: How do you recommend dealing with times when I feel overloaded and so does my son? It is hard to get the balance and avoid getting snappy!

Is there a non-verbal way to communicate if one or the other of you is overwhelmed? So that you can get a time-out and not have to deal with the issue in the moment? It could be anything e.g. a traffic light system “I’m at red”, a gesture or a word that you agree on together. Don’t be afraid to walk away and take five - your own self-care is important. Prioritising this will help you to parent from a place of calm.

When emotions are running high is not the time to deal with behaviour or teach social skills. No one can process information properly in that state. If you’re overloaded you can’t really deal with an issue logically, you are just reacting on instinct. An overwhelmed child is not fully in control (just like when you are feeling overwhelmed), so there’s no need to punish for words or actions that happen during that “reactive” fight or flight state.

Instead, your focus should be on calming strategies for yourself and your child. 

Work out your strategies together (while you’re in a calm state!) Strategies for how to calm yourself down, how to calm your child down, or what they can do to calm themselves down. You could make a list together of calm-down strategies, or even have a little box of things that you or your child can choose from. It might be sensory toys, it might be some visual cue cards to give yourself options in that moment e.g. to make a cup of tea, rock/stim in some other way, or to watch a funny video. It doesn’t matter what it is - as long as they are safe, and that they work for you.

There are lots of sensory ideas in the sensory section of My Toolkit here.

Question 2: How, as a parent, can I create a healthy distance in order to cope with my daughter’s mental low days and to be able to parent positively through these times? I feel so tied into her mood/mental state that I feel everything she feels and am finding it increasingly hard to bounce back from the difficult times.

This is a really tough one to deal with, and I’m sorry to hear that is such a challenge at the moment. I think first of all there is something in being kind to yourself and ensuring your self-care is there. It’s essential for you as well as for her, so make sure you’ve got even a small self-care outlet for yourself. It could be anything you enjoy and that brings you a bit of peace and calm, even if it’s only for a few minutes each day.

There’s something else here as well in being able to recognise that you are of course very empathetic towards your daughter, but alongside that identifying when you need to step back to support your own mental health. It could be as simple as agreeing upon a little boundary. For example, agree together that she will send you a particular emoji in a text, or whatever else feels natural for both of you, when she needs you to step in. A way for her to actively seek out your help or to let you know when things are particularly difficult. That way, if you’re having a day where you need to take a bit of time for yourself, you know that you don’t need to also be hypervigilant and on the lookout all the time, because she will ask if she needs something.

It might be nice to try and do something shared together that is totally unrelated to all the difficulties going on, where you both switch off from all of that. E.g. a hobby you both like because it makes you feel good. Just to give a different focus that’s positive. Generally, a joint focus on something else can make communication easier too, which always helps. It could be a film night, exercise, a TV show you’re both into, and you can create a bit of a ritual around doing that together.

I’d also want to reassure you: it is ok to not be perfect or 100% on all of the time. You’re self-aware enough to be reflecting on all this and asking questions, which suggests to me that you’re probably already doing loads of good things.

Question 3: How can I connect with my child? I have such a hard time knowing that he understands me. I find it hard to truly know what's going on inside of him, so that I can help him better with self-regulation challenges.

Without knowing some more background it’s hard to give a super concrete answer here. Instead, I’ll pose some of the questions I’d ask if a client said something like this. I would encourage you to think about: how much time do you spend together, how do you spend that time together, and what does he like doing that you can get involved in?

Once you’ve got an idea of that, maybe take ten minutes every day to focus on that connection. It doesn’t have to be long, just put everything on do not disturb mode and enjoy those moments doing something together that he really enjoys and that you can get involved with, with no distractions.

Question 4: I'm failing at putting routines together that fit us both, it just slips out of my mind. Is that related to autism, or is that another kind of challenge?

It’s not uncommon for those with autistic traits to also have issues with attention and planning e.g. ADHD. It might be helpful to go back to basics on a very simple visual routine here. Even if your child is non-verbal or isn’t strong with literacy, it can just be pictures. Or a checklist, or a timetable - whatever works for you both. You can tailor it to yourself and to your child, in any way feels appealing and easy.

Some people will write out what’s happening for the day on a whiteboard, or you can get pictures on velcro that you stick on a wall chart, or draw up some flashcards of your own to stick on a pinboard in the right sequence for the day. Depending on what you and your child enjoy, it could be a fun creative project for you to work out together!

Whatever you do, keep it super visual and super simple. Start with the absolute basics: what do I NEED us to get done each day? Try something out, trial and error (it won’t all go perfectly from day 1!) then learn and expand from that.

Question 5: How can I support my child to form good habits for study and to follow the habit rather than the mood?

Similar to the previous question, I’d be thinking about visuals here in terms of forming a habit. Think about all the visuals you naturally use in your own life for structure (e.g. paper diary, calendar, phone notes, shopping lists) and see how these could apply to her. These are all visuals! It can be anything, we all use them one way or another, but a little extra can go a really long way for autistic people. It just takes some of the internal processing load away - when things are already “figured out” or sequenced etc. in a visual.

In terms of following the habit rather than the mood, I think her knowing when she is stressed and being able to get back to a place of calm is important. You can’t study if you’re overwhelmed and stressed. Maybe there is something here about not being too black and white e.g. if she has a block of two hours to study but is feeling stressed or low-energy, use a calm down or an energising strategy for a bit and then do X minutes rather than the full two hours, that’s still ok. A good dialogue with the school around workload and mental health can help here too, to ensure expectations are realistic and things aren’t being pushed if they don’t 100% need to be.

Question 6: How do I keep my child positive when she feels that the education system is setting her up to fail and that society judges people by their academic success/failure?

As much as that is sometimes the rhetoric, there is more to life than grades, and pushing harder can sometimes have the opposite effect. It’s such a tough time in life being a teenager anyway without autism to contend with. Often autism comes alongside a feeling of needing to be “perfect”, and being very black and white about success or failure, which can make building confidence in new areas really hard.

I would say encourage interests and passions outside of academic achievements. It isn’t universally true that society judges people that way - maybe there are other role models etc. that have taken a different path in areas she’s interested in and therefore challenge these assumptions?

Encourage her to explore and feel a sense of achievement in whatever it is she is naturally drawn to and gifted with, something that sparks her curiosity, to help build her confidence.


Question 7: How do I find the right balance between doing things for my child to remove the muddle/mess, and doing too much meaning they are completely reliant on me?

I’d come back to visuals again. Have checklists or visuals of the things they need to do or remember. And agree how they can ask for help or communicate that there is a challenge if needed (see questions 1 and 2 above). That then takes the pressure off you needing to do it, or off them having to be reminded lots.

Depending on the age of the child you can have a conversation and set this up together. It teaches good strategies that might be useful for them later in life as well - many of us use lists to remember things, for example, it’s just an extension of that!

Question 8: How can I help my son with self-regulation and get him to participate in calming strategies (if I try, he seems to run the other way or acts silly/keyed up)?

I would ask you to think about: when is he most calm? When is he most happy? Are these things you can use at other times, even in small ways, to calm him?

It might be that these current strategies are not things he’s developmentally ready for yet, and/or they may not suit his particular sensory needs in that moment.

Be up for experimenting and things not going 100% each time! It might be that different things work at different times, or that he has different sensory needs in different situations. That will only come through trial and error. Having something not work doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it just means you’re still experimenting!

You can find a list with loads of sensory ideas here.


Thank you to Natalie for sharing her expertise. See our other interviews with Natalie here, one about diagnosis and disclosure and one about communication and soclialising.

Lauren x


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