Parenting: Live And Let Live


Early this morning, while I was sipping my first coffee of the day and browsing through my Facebook feed, I came across a thread that made me feel incredibly sad. It was a post about co-sleeping, and one of the first comments was from a woman saying that she believed co-sleeping was fine as long as it was done safely, that she had co-slept with her first child and that she would co-sleep with any future children.

The thing that made me sad was how other moms lambasted this woman, told her that she was uneducated, and said that if she lost a baby, it would be her own fault.

I have no interest in starting another debate about co-sleeping. Quite frankly, I don’t have a strong position about the subject one way or the other. One of my babies slept in a crib, the other co-slept with me. I did what I felt was best for each child, and in both cases, I made safety the paramount concern.

What I do have a strong position about is the idea that the vast majority of parents do what they think is best for their children, most of them research their choices, and most of them do everything they can to keep their kids safe. Unless a mother is being deliberately and blatantly abusive or negligent, she should be allowed to make those choices for her children without worrying about what other people think.

It always fascinates me that a species as diverse as the human race tends to think in such absolute terms, and parents are no exception to this. Many of them tend to believe that there is only one right way of doing things, and it’s their way, and anyone who does things differently is a <insert insulting adjective> parent.

Frankly, I’m tired of it. When will parents just accept that what’s right for them is – well, right for them? The fact that some moms breastfeed their kids until Kindergarten does not give them the right to criticize moms who are unable to breastfeed or who simply choose not to do so. Parents who limit their kids’ screen time should not be accused of being unreasonable, and those who do not should not be branded as lazy. If you let your baby “cry it out”, you are not heartless and mean, and if you pick up your baby whenever he cries, you are not spoiling your child.

Your own personal experience – no matter how tragic – does not entitle you to judge other people. Your child’s autism diagnosis may have come shortly after a vaccination, but you don’t get to accuse pro-vaxers of being uninformed and ignorant. Maybe your formula-fed child developed life-threatening food allergies, but that doesn’t give you the right to tell other formula-feeding moms that breastfeeding would be possible if only they would try harder. If your baby died while co-sleeping, I am truly sorry for your loss, but please don’t go around telling parents who choose to co-sleep that they are potential child-killers.

I’m not suggesting that we all shut up about our beliefs and opinions, or that we stop sharing our experiences. On the contrary – parents who speak out about what they go through can be valuable resources to other parents who are struggling with their choices or looking for information about their options. It’s even OK to be passionate about something that you have a strong opinion about.

Just be respectful about it, that’s all. No blame, no finger-pointing, no judging.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: mariana f. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


Autism Is No Excuse


A few weeks ago, there was a story in our local community newspaper about a boy with autism who had been asked to leave a restaurant, along with his mother. When I first read the headline – Autistic boy booted from restaurant – I felt outrage on behalf of the mother and child. But when I read the story, I found my sympathies shifting to the restaurant manager.

What happened was that a mother and her son with autism were eating at a fast food restaurant, and the child started melting down over something. He was shrieking and banging on the table, and at one point he grabbed a fistful of fries and threw them. The mother made little effort to soothe the child, saying, “He has autism. There’s nothing I can do.” When the manager politely asked her to leave, she complied, but in the aftermath she made a big deal of the fact that her son had been discriminated against because of his autism. The manager made a big deal of the fact that the child had been acting in a manner that was disruptive to other diners.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time will know that I’ve dealt with my share of autism meltdowns. I’ve been that mother whose child kicks and screams in public places. I’ve been on the receiving end of the stares and comments, and on two occasions, I have had to offer to pay grocery stores for goods that have been damaged as a result of my son’s outbursts.

But my son’s autism does not entitle him to create a situation that disrupts the activities or enjoyment of other people. When he acts out in public, it’s for one of two reasons: either he is having an autism meltdown, or he’s acting like typical bratty kid. If he’s having an autism meltdown, it’s up to me to try and soothe him, either by removing him from the situation or by finding a way to divert his attention to something else. If he’s acting like a typical bratty kid, it’s up to me to discipline him and make it clear to him that bad behaviour is not acceptable.

Either way, it’s never OK for me to use my child’s disability as an excuse to let him behave in a way that impacts other people. He may have autism, but he still has to be held to a certain standard of behaviour, just like the rest of us. That restaurant manager was not reacting to the fact that the boy had autism. He was reacting to the child’s disruptive actions and the mother’s failure to do anything.

There was a story in the news a few years back about a child with autism who was removed from a plane under similar circumstances. He was lying in the aisle having a meltdown while the flight attendants and other passengers were trying to step over and around him. All attempts to get him settled in his seat were failing, and eventually the boy and his father were taken off the plane. My Facebook feed erupted in outrage as people accused the airline of discriminating against the boy with autism.

But really, what was the airline supposed to do? Delay the flight until the meltdown was over, which could have taken hours? Take off with a boy kicking and screaming in the aisle? Allow the behaviour to continue without regard for the safety of the flight attendants or passengers? My view was very unpopular, but I believe that the airline took the only action they really could. They would have done what they did whether the child had autism or not. In fact, from what I could glean from the story, the airline actually delayed their decision to remove the child because they had been made aware of his autism.

This subject reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago, when I was still in South Africa. I was talking to a co-worker about a high-profile murder case in which the accused had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Evidence against this individual had been overwhelming, in terms of forensics and witness accounts. My co-worker, a black man, told me that this man had been sent to prison just because he was black. I disagreed.

“No,” I said. “He’s been sent to prison because he killed four people.”

My co-worker did not dispute the fact that the man was guilty, but he was stuck on this idea that the outcome of the trial was symptomatic of racial discrimination. But what was the alternative? Should the judge have let the criminal walk free just to prove that he – the judge – wasn’t a racist?

Should flight attendants, restaurant managers and other people endure a child screaming and throwing things in public just to prove that they don’t discriminate against people with autism?

Discrimination in any way, shape or form is wrong. I do not condone racism, gender discrimination, homophobia or any kind of bias against people with disabilities. I am big on human rights and equality. I believe that accommodations should be made for members of minorities and people with disabilities where possible – like wheelchair accessible buildings, government services in multiple languages and alternative screening processes for job applicants with autism. But I also believe that everyone has a responsibility to be considerate to those around them.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Dmitry Kalinin. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


Eight Car-Travel Tips For Autism Families

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I am very fortunate to have a child with autism who is a good traveler. We haven’t braved planes with him yet, but he does very well on public transportation and in the car. Even so, we have to put careful planning into lengthy drives to ensure that he stays safe and happy, and that the rest of the family survives with all their wits intact.

1. Make sure the child locks are engaged. Most neurotypical kids are aware of the dangers of opening the car door while the car is in motion. A kid with autism might tug on the door handle just to see what happens, without regard for the possible consequences. If you don’t know how to set the child locks, read the manual. If you’re in the market for a new car, check it out for safety features with your special needs child in mind.

2. Kids who have trouble with car travel should be eased into it gradually. If your child cannot get as far as the grocery store without melting down, don’t plan a road trip to the other end of the country. Experiment with a few trips of 30 minutes or so. During those trips, try different activities and snacks, until you figure out what works.

3. If you’re going on a long trip, plan your route to include stops at parks or play areas. We all benefit from getting out of the car and moving around from time to time, and it’s good for all kids to expend their energy. For kids with autism, there is an added consideration: those who are sensory-seeking may have a particularly difficult time sitting still in a car, so those activity breaks are often a necessity for them.

4. Some kids with autism cannot tolerate bright light. You might be able to make the trip a lot easier by investing in a shade for the window beside your child. The shades are easily applied with suction cups, and you might be able to leave it to your child to decide whether they are open or closed.

5. When deciding what to bring with you, stick with what you know your child likes. Buying a new toy especially for the trip may backfire. If your child stims by repeatedly stacking eight identical pieces of Lego, bring them along. If he reads the same book over and over, don’t leave that book at home. New stuff might create anxiety and frustration, whereas comfort can be found in the familiar items.

6. If you are planning to hit the road at night with the hope that your child will sleep, follow the usual bedtime routine immediately before you leave. It may still be a little disruptive, but your child will at least be geared for the idea of going to sleep. You may even get away with putting a smaller child to bed and then carrying him to the car once he’s gone to sleep.

7. Be prepared for the possibility of meltdowns. It can happen to the most accomplished of car travelers. If you use reinforcers (in our case, gummy bears), bring along a good supply. Think of your usual strategies for containing or diffusing meltdowns, and consider how you can modify them for use in a moving car (if you can stop, great – but you may not be able to pull over right away).

8. Don’t be 100% focused on the needs of your child with autism. The truth is that no matter how well prepared you are, unexpected things can happen. If you have taken the time to make sure everyone in the car has what they need for an enjoyable trip, the overall ambiance will be a lot more relaxed. That can make the world of difference to the child with autism, and to everybody else who is on the trip.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle, published in accordance with my disclosure policy. Photo credit to the author.



He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

When I tell people that I have a child with autism, their immediate focus tends to be on what that must be like for me as a parent. Very few people have expressed any kind of compassion for my younger son – the neurotypical sibling. It’s not that people don’t care, they just don’t think about the challenges of the autism sibling until I bring up the subject. The truth is that the siblings can so easily be overlooked when, in a sense, they are special needs children themselves because of the roles they find themselves in.

I am calling this “James Week” on my blog. All of the posts that I publish here for the next seven days are dedicated to James, in honour of how utterly fantastic he is. I am so proud to be his mom.

Yesterday afternoon, George was crying. He was crying because he’d gotten into trouble – actual, real trouble that involved serious consequences. This is a big deal because it happens so rarely. We scold him, of course, and we don’t let him get away with stuff like headbutting his little brother. But thereal trouble – the kind that results in timeouts and the removal of computer privileges – we save for times when he has done something that could seriously compromise his safety or someone else’s.

Like the time he climbed a ladder onto the roof a few weeks ago. Or the time he hit his brother on the head with the business end of a garden hoe.

Yesterday’s transgression happened after we had all been sitting on the front steps of the house, drinking tea and enjoying the lovely weather. James was kicking a soccer ball around on the driveway, and George was tossing plastic ball into the air and then hitting it with a baseball bat, in a surprisingly coordinated way. When it was time to go in and start thinking about dinner, George got upset because he wanted to continue playing. We know that transitions can be rough for him, so we patiently spoke to him and tried to get him to yield the baseball bat.

In the end, he yelled, “FINE!”, threw the baseball bat down on the ground, stormed into the house and slammed the front door. In other words, he acted like a typical almost-nine-year-old bratty kid who wasn’t getting his own way.

Which is great, and normally something that would have me jumping for joy.

The problem was that he flipped the lock on the front door, so none of the rest of us could get in.

Oh dear. My autistic son – my upset autistic son – was unattended in a locked house. That is a frightening prospect: we were more worried about his safety than anything else. We did eventually talk George into unlocking the door, and then, to use common parenting parlance, we read him the riot act. He was given a timeout, which he hates, and then he had to wait for an hour before he was allowed to use his computer.

He cried as if the world was about to end. Tears of absolute desolation flowed from him as he lay on the couch. He looked utterly heartbroken.

Well, this was no good. We had wanted to discipline him, not make him miserable. I lay down on the couch beside him and told him I loved him. I tried to comfort him, but he would not be comforted. I started thinking that this might be one of those times where you just have to let the kid cry it out of his system.  But it turned out that he simply needed something else.

He got off the couch and ran into James’ room, where James was lying quietly on his bed waiting for the storm to pass. George got onto the bed beside James and gently tugged at James’ arm. James responded by looping his arm over George, and the boys lay there hugging each other.

And just like that, George was calm, as if someone had flicked a switch. Which in some way, James clearly had.

I instinctively knew that I needed to back away and let the brothers have some time alone.

As I quietly left the room, I heard James softly say to George, “I would do anything for you, George.”

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)


Autism Meltdowns: Six Strategies For Helping Siblings

It is a scenario that parents of children with autism are confronted with countless times: the child melts down for no apparent reason while his or her brother or sister stands by helplessly, not understanding what is going on. Autism meltdowns can be particularly bewildering for younger siblings who may not fully understand what autism is or why the meltdown is happening.

The strategies that I am describing today are based purely on my own experiences. I did not read them on the Internet or get them from any parenting books. I learned these in the best way possible: from the School of Hard Knocks.

1. When a child with autism starts having a meltdown, the primary concern should be for everyone’s physical safety. The child is going to lash out wildly, hitting or kicking whatever or whoever he comes into contact with. He may run around with no real direction and bang his head on objects or people. Children going through an autism meltdown seem to have superhuman strength, and there could be a real threat to siblings who are standing too close. Therefore it is imperative to ensure the safety of the siblings as early as possible in the incident. This can be accomplished by taking them to a different room and making sure they have enough toys or books to see them through for what could be a couple of hours.

2. Siblings should never be punished while a meltdown is happening. This may seem intuitive, but it can be really easy to fall into the trap of yelling at siblings who happen to get too close while the parent is trying to deal with the autistic child. We are, after all, only human. If a child wanders up during a critical moment, we can have a knee-jerk reaction to yell, “Get away!” or “Go to your room!”  Doing this may make the sibling feel that he is somehow responsible, and that is not a burden any child should carry. A better strategy would be to ask the child to leave the room, promising that you will go to them as soon as their brother or sister is OK.

3. Recognize that the siblings are not only bewildered and confused by what is happening, they are also in all probability deeply concerned about their brother or sister. In the scenario described above, where the sibling is getting too close, it may be helpful to verbally acknowledge this. Tell the sibling that you know how scary this is for them, that you know they are worried. This simple strategy will validate their feelings and give them permission to feel the way they feel, and it can go a long way to helping them weather the storm.

4. When the meltdown is over, take the time to explain to the siblings what just happened. Talk to them about autism and how children affected by it sometimes have difficulty processing emotions or sensory overload. It is fairly common for siblings to start apologizing in the aftermath, worrying that something they did caused the explosion. They have to be reassured that this was not their fault.

5. More often than not, the sibling is going to need some post-meltdown reassurance that their brother or sister is OK. Bear in mind that they have just been witnesses to an extremely intense melting pot of emotion. They may want to see or talk to their brother or sister. Exercise caution, because meltdowns that have passed can flare up again, but is important for you allow (but not force) interaction between your children.

6. Reserve some time to spend exclusively with your autistic child’s sibling. It can be tough, being brother or sister to a child with autism. There are many times when the needs of the typically developing children are sidelined because of the special needs of their sibling. Meltdowns definitely fall into this category. Because of the nature of these explosions, parents have no choice but to mostly ignore one child so they can focus on the safety of another. When the meltdown is over – be it immediately or later in the day – that time should be given back to the sibling without autism. Read to your child, watch his favourite DVD with him, let him choose a game to play, or simply spend time snuggling with him.

Managing meltdowns involves so much more than taking care of the child with autism. We have to consider our typically developing children as well. Even though they don’t have autism, they are still children, and they look to us to protect and reassure them. Using these strategies consistently can help them develop their coping skills and enhance their relationship with their autistic brother or sister.

Do you have any tips to add to my list? Please leave them in the comments!

(Photo credit: This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)