Autism Interview #169 Part 2: Aria Sky on Clear Expectations and Positive Autism Parenting

Aria Sky is a late-diagnosed Autistic mother of four. She blogs at Mamautistic on a variety of her personal experiences as an Autistic adult. In Part 1 of her two-part interview, Aria shared her diagnosis story and discussed common barriers to diagnoses and ways to make access to a diagnosis more equitable. In Part 2 of her interview, she emphasized the importance of setting clear expectations, especially during public outings. Aria also added essential strategies for raising children with a positive Autistic identity.

You’ve written that respecting your child’s needs and giving them some level of control during outings can help them be more pleasant and successful, saying, “My children have always known that they will be listened to if the plans end up being unmanageable for them!” What do you tell your children prior to outings or how do you act that helps reinforce this?

Well, they’re quite a bit older now, and it’s been a while since we’ve gone much of anywhere (thanks, COVID!), but I’ll write out what I used to do 🙂 Note that none of my children was diagnosed before age 7, so I had no idea they were Autistic at all until after we’d established our routines for outings. Clearly outlining expectations and plans plus letting them know that I cared about whether they were able to manage those expectations and plans seemed to work very well for all my young children, Autistic or not.

Okay, on to the details!

Generally before going places, especially when they were between the ages of 1 and 8, I’d tell them where we needed to go (“We need to go to the grocery store”), why we needed to go/what we needed to do there (“We need to buy x,y,z because we ate all those foods”), what they could expect to get for themselves (“You can pick out one treat for less than $1” or sometimes “We can’t get anything extra at the store, but can do *fun thing* afterwards”), and how long the trip was likely to take (so they’d have an end point to look forward to if the trip was difficult for them). 

Then, I’d go over what the typical behavior expectations were for the place we were going (“While we’re there you need to walk, hold my hand, talk quietly, etc.”) and have them repeat those things to me if they were able to do so. Then I’d tell them what things were not considered appropriate to do while we were there (usually things like running, yelling, asking to buy more than we’d already agreed upon, etc.). Then we’d go over the things that I did want them to do while we were there once again. 

Then I’d ask them if they thought they could do the things they needed to do while we were in public. If they said “no,” then we’d talk more in-depth about why they didn’t think they could do it and would usually plan to go out a different time after they’d eaten or had a nap or maybe wait until another day. If they said “yes,” then we’d continue as planned, and if they started having a hard time, becoming unable to manage in the situation without becoming distressed, then we’d leave ASAP.

As they got older, I just asked them the questions, and it often went a bit like this: 

“We need to go to the grocery store to buy x,y,z; how do we behave at the grocery store?” *they’d answer* 

“Do you think you can do those things if we go to the store soon?” *”yes” = continuing on, “no” = meet their needs and then ask again later)

“And what are you NOT going to do while we’re at the grocery store?” *they’d answer* 

“Go ahead and run around and be loud a bit before we go so it’ll be easier to walk, be quiet, etc. when we’re there.” *they’d joyfully run and be loud*

“Are you ready to go?” *if not, they’d keep running around, if yes, then we’d load up into the car*

Then again in the car on the way there: “Okay, now what are you going to do when we’re at the store?” *they’d answer*

I wore all my babies in slings and wraps and such until they were around 2 or 3 years old so when they were very little, I didn’t expect them to be able to control their bodies at ALL in the ways I describe above. At those ages, I would instead let them know that they had the choice of either being worn by me or riding in the cart. I always asked them, when they were around ages 3-8, if they thought they’d be able to walk next to me or if they needed to ride in the cart instead.

I always tried to give them options/choices that would work for them AND also allow me to get to the store when I needed to go. It’s not always an option to have the children stay at home (especially when they’re little), and when I was little, I always did better if there were clear expectations laid out, so that’s what I did with my own children.

Minimizing unexpected situations helped as well. When we’d go somewhere for the first time, I’d try to explain ahead of time what the experience would be like so that they weren’t just being taken somewhere new and being expected to do things that they didn’t even know about.

Of course, sometimes errands HAVE to be done immediately, even if we try to minimize that possibility.

In that case I would let them know that an errand or appointment HAD to happen (even if it might be difficult for them). However, we would plan to do something afterwards that the child loves to do and that would often help them get through a difficult outing. I never tied an afterwards thing to how they behaved during the difficult trip though — they’d get to do the fun afterwards thing regardless of how they managed during the errand because we all survived the difficult outing even if it was a struggle. 

Often if small children seem to be misbehaving, it’s more that they’re struggling than that they’re trying to be “bad” or “difficult,” so removing a fun afterwards plan due to behavior challenges isn’t particularly kind, in my opinion.

Oh, and I always followed through with what I said. If I told my children we’d leave somewhere if they struggled, then we left if they struggled. If I told them we could go somewhere fun afterwards, then we went as soon as we could (even if it wasn’t immediately afterwards). 

Words mean things and I think it gives children a sense of security if they know that their parents are trustworthy and what their parents say is true. I don’t believe in lying to children or exaggerating responses to try and get them to behave a certain way.

You also suggest that parents need training for public outings in order to learn how to be respectful of their children’s needs and give clear expectations. Can you give a practical example of how you’ve seen people manage behaviors in the “right” and “wrong” way?

Well, I’m not sure there’s an overarching “right” way to do things, but being clear about expectations and preparing the child for the outing can set the child up for success because the children understand the situation, what’s expected of them, and have an idea of how long they’ll be out in public with those expectations. 

I think it sets young children of any neurotype up for failure to just take them places without any preparation for the outing.

But of course preparation beforehand (or the lack thereof) is largely invisible to onlookers since it ideally happens before being out in public. 

Things I have seen:

Some other parents are quite compassionate towards their upset children in public, letting them know that the trip is almost over and if they can just hang on for a few more minutes they can be out of the store. Giving children a deadline, a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s just “soon!” can be reassuring. Leaving the distressing situation as soon as possible is a tactic I’ve seen from several parents in public, and I think that’s one of the best things that can be done once the child has reached a level of visible distress.

Even better is to try and minimize the chances of the child becoming that distressed in the first place!

Unfortunately, mostly I’ve seen people respond to their children’s behaviors in quite negative ways. I live in the Deep South USA, so it’s not unusual to hear parents yelling at or even hitting their children in public, which I don’t ever think is a good way to respond to someone who’s struggling and/or in distress.

What are some of the most important ways to raise children with a positive Autistic identity?

Accepting children for who they are is the most important thing, I think. Part of that acceptance includes respecting their difficulties/disabilities and accommodating them whenever possible so that the child grows up knowing how to make their life easier while still having to live in a world that likely won’t respect or accept their difficulties and/or disabilities.

Disability also isn’t a bad word. Disability is something that needs to be acknowledged and respected and accommodated, not denied or ignored. Many of us are disabled in various ways, and that’s okay.  

Parents of Autistic children would do well to listen to Autistic adults, read the books and blogs we write, watch our YouTube videos, and ask us questions if we’ve indicated that we’re open to putting in the work of answering them. Make sure that your children know (or at least know ABOUT) other Autistic people — especially older Autistic people! 

It’s so important to see the possibilities of what our lives can be like as we get older! Knowing that there were other people like me would’ve made a huge difference when I was younger, especially as a tween/teen/young adult. 

Knowing that there are Autistic people with high support needs who can also get married, have children, hold long-term jobs, drive, graduate from college, write books… it can be such an encouraging thing! Not that all of us can do all those things — I have only managed to successfully do half of those things myself — but those things are possible! 

It just often looks different for us than it does for most other people when we manage those things, and that’s okay because there isn’t just one right way to do things.

And that’s also vitally important to let Autistic children know: There isn’t just one right way to do things. They can find their own right way to live their lives that works for them!

Connect with Aria:

https://mamautistic.site/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Mamautistic/

Twitter: @mamautistic36

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