Co-parenting can be a challenge at the best of times for reasons both in and out of our control. A lack of time, resources, clear communication, and compromising can create situations where parents and children feel overwhelmed, ignored or isolated, especially when you add autism to the mix.
When it comes to autism and co-parenting, there can be some additional challenges that everyone involved needs to consider. Many autistic people find changes to their lifestyle and day-to- day routines stressful and overwhelming, especially when they’re unexpected.
They may have a delayed or particularly intense reaction to the separation of their parents, as well as situations like meeting their parent’s new partner or moving between houses. It may also be difficult for autistic children – and autistic parents – to find and maintain therapies and support services that suit their new and ever-changing circumstances.
Although co-parenting and autism can be a tricky combination, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Plenty of parents have walked this road before and are successfully navigating co-parenting, single parenting, and other parenting arrangements today. We’re going to take you through some tips for autism and co- parenting, as well as share the firsthand experiences of parents at different stages of the journey.
STARTING ON THE JOURNEY
A successful co-parenting arrangement doesn’t appear overnight, especially when it involves people on the autism spectrum. Co-parenting situations are often evolving constantly to suit the changing needs of those involved, with this being especially true at the start of the journey as you discover what works and what doesn’t. Autistic people may react differently to non-autistic people when it comes to changes such are as the separation of their parents or moving to a new house. Whether it’s a delayed reaction, a more intense reaction or a less intense reaction than you’d expect, it’s important not to be judgemental and to support them as best you can. Where possible, ensure changes to that person’s therapies, supports and day-to-day routine change are as gradual and minimal as possible, and anticipate some extra support may be needed in those early days.
A MUM’S AND DAD’S PERSPECTIVE
Many parents of children with autism or disability are single parents. For single parents, it can be particularly difficult to navigate the challenges of autism such as meltdowns, school refusal and burnout, as well as juggling therapies and supports alongside other commitments. Jo Abi, a journalist at 9Honey, spoke to us about her experience as a single mother to three autistic young people:
‘Parenting autistic children as a single parent is much easier than parenting autistic children with an unsupportive partner. I learned this the hard way, and I tried and tried to improve the situation, but I simply ran out of energy. Every spare droplet of time and energy was spent advocating for my children, and I just couldn’t face having to do it at home. Leaving was terrifying, but it came with a period of peace for both me and the children. Now we can relax in our home, and the challenges are ‘out there’ not where we live. My ex-husband has come a long way since then and does his best to provide for and support the children, but for some reason that didn’t happen until recently.
I wouldn’t have it any other way and didn’t date after my divorce because I didn’t want to risk the carefully established harmony we were enjoying, but I do have a partner now who is also autistic and understands, but at the end of the day these are my children to raise, and I feel like I am doing a good job of it.’
Information, resources and support for fathers of autistic children can be few and far between, with many dads finding the parenting experience quite lonely. Rob Anderson, an autism parent, shares his advice:
‘As a dad you can feel your job is to fix things. I’ve felt for much of the time, I’ve been failing as a parent. In this new reality you have to come to the understanding that there is a lot that you’re not going to be able to control. I now accept that parenting is going look different and realise I need to be a dad that that doesn’t have fixed expectations and is open to new learnings every day.’
CO-PARENTING WHEN ONE OR BOTH PARENTS ARE AUTISTIC
Contrary to popular belief, many autistic people have relationships, marriages and children, sometimes only realising they’re on the autism spectrum when their children are diagnosed. Autistic adults can also struggle with major changes such as separation and divorce and may need additional support to ensure they can continue caring for themselves and their children.
Some tips that may help autistic parents navigate co-parenting include:
• Work with who you’re co-parenting with to create a clearly structured schedule that you can all stick to. Ensure this schedule meets the needs of everyone involved.
• Examine your current schedule and identify activities that cause little stress, some stress and high stress. Then, adjust your schedule to ensure that you have as few high-stress activities as possible, and those that you can’t avoid are spread out with recovery time in between.
• Follow any stressful tasks or commitments with low-stress or relaxing activities. For example, if you have to take your child to a shopping centre where it’s incredibly noisy and busy, head straight to the comfort of your home afterwards and unwind.
• Continue to communicate regularly with who you’re co-parenting with to ensure your routine still meets your needs and the needs of your children.
YOUR NEXT STEPS
Co-parenting can be difficult on the best of days, so remember to be kind to yourself, especially when things are difficult. Bad days don’t last forever and there’s always someone who can help and relate, even when it doesn’t feel that way.