Spare the rod spoil the child

There are a few things recently that I’ve mentioned in passing to friends or family of decisions we’ve made with Katie which have had a bit of a mixed reaction. I think sometimes me and John can struggle with how we parent her because we are bringing her up in a different way to how we were brought up by our parents and it can be a challenge to adapt our thinking.

There is evidence to suggest that autism may be genetic. From what I’ve read there are many adults who through their own child’s diagnosis come to realise that actually they are autistic themselves. This has not at all been the case for me. I knew very little about autism before Katie’s diagnosis and it has definitely been a journey of discovery, but not because it has helped me learn more about myself. The more I learn about autism the more eye opening it is. I’m learning an alternative view of the world and ways of processing information I wouldn’t ever have considered, and it fascinates me and baffles me. I think I’m about as neurotypical as you get. I think John would also describe himself as neurotypical, and certainly he finds it difficult to understand some of Katie’s reactions to things, which suggests he can’t identify with them himself. I would say we were both also brought up in a very ‘neurotypical’ way – respect your parents, do what you’re told, if you misbehave there are consequences. For me as a child this was fine. I was happy and I can’t fault my mum in her parenting decisions. They suited me and worked well on me for want of a better way to put it.

This way of parenting just doesn’t work with Katie. It confuses her and she ends up being very unsettled and angry. She doesn’t respect people just because they’re her parents / teachers / they’re an adult, she respects people if she feels they’ve earned it. She finds it very hard to do as she’s told unless she’s given a valid reason for it. If she asks for something and is told no she needs a reason behind the decision. Sometimes when she seems to be misbehaving, she’s really not. This is mainly to do with communication. She can come across as rude or annoyed when she isn’t, she is just very literal and doesn’t sugar coat things and she also finds it hard or impossible to notice the tone of her voice. She is also very anxious. Obviously being autistic doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to struggle with anxiety, and people can have anxiety without being autistic, but for Katie I think her anxiety is linked to feeling different and worrying that she’s done something wrong without always knowing how or why she has annoyed someone. My parenting with Katie is becoming much more about trying to make sure she’s at ease within herself and much less about discipline, but there is a bit of an internal struggle there sometimes that this doesn’t always match people’s expectations of what parenting should look like, or that we’re too lenient. I’ve given a couple of examples below.

Eating at the table

I’ve mentioned before that Katie doesn’t usually eat meals with us. She doesn’t want to sit and have a chat around the table and she doesn’t like the sounds of everyone chewing, breathing, cutlery on plates etc. The rest of us do still sit together because there’s no reason not to and those things don’t bother anyone else. So our approach with Katie is that if she wants to sit and eat with us she’s always welcome and we like to have her there. If she doesn’t feel like she’s able to that’s fine as well and she can take herself off to the playroom and eat on her own.

We find that Katie is much more likely to eat breakfast at the table with Alice and Matthew, but she hardly ever eats with us at dinner. I assume this is because she’s less stressed at the start of the day, whereas by dinner time she’s had a whole day of school or seeing friends or whatever it may be and she’s had enough and needs some quiet. It’s noticeable that when she does sit with us we can all just be together and it’s fine, because she’s chosen to be with us and can manage it. When we used to have everyone sat at the table for every meal because “that’s how it’s done” a lot of our meals were tetchy and argumentative because there were times Katie must have been struggling to be there and would constantly snap at everyone.

I have a friend who found her childhood quite tricky in some respects and has had issues along the way with her parents. As an adult she’s now being assessed for ADHD. We were talking about Katie not eating with us and her initial reaction was that she wished her parents would have done the same for her, very swiftly followed by “but there are some things we just have to do, and she’s got to learn to sit at a table”.

There is this idea that eating together round the table means quality family time. It doesn’t necessarily. For me, yes I like eating at a table with other people and I enjoy going out for meals. It’s nice to have a chat with people and sometimes eating together is the best time of day to stop other things and pay attention to each other. But it’s only quality time if it’s benefitting everyone and everyone wants to be there. It’s not quality time for Katie. What’s the point of forcing her to be in an environment that she finds stressful, that makes her irritable, and that gives her negative associations with food? There are a whole load of other ways to spend quality time with her where she’s a willing participant. She can spend time gardening with John, she can spend time showing me her favourite YouTube clips, we can play a board game together. As far as I can see the only real argument for everyone eating at the table is that it’s just more practical as the kids are dropping any mess onto the table rather than all over the house!

I’m also very conscious that Katie spends a huge amount of her time doing things she doesn’t want to do. I know this is true for anyone to some extent, but for me and John, for Alice and Matthew, and for most neurotypical people, the list of things we don’t want to do is a fraction of the size of the list for Katie. It’s also not always as simple as just not wanting to do something. Sometimes it will be because she’s 9 years old! But a lot of the time “I don’t want to’ is struggling with sensory overload and social difficulties on a daily basis. She already has to sit and eat her lunch in her classroom with 30 other kids 5 days a week. She comes with us if we go out for a meal and she can sit in a restaurant and manage OK and/or enjoy it, but she will most likely need to shut herself away afterwards. Home should be the place where she can be comfortable and do what she needs to do without being pressured or criticised. If that means taking herself away from a socially constructed idea that time around the table means quality family time that’s fine.

Sports day

Katie has always hated sports day. She spent most of her first school sports day in tears and wouldn’t join in with any of the races unless I did them with her. In year 1 and 2 she managed it on the day but there was a big build up to it at home beforehand with lots of worrying, talking about the races, how many people would be there etc. Last year sports day was cancelled because of covid, which I think Katie and I were both relieved about because she had moved into the juniors at that point so sports day would have been more competitive than previous years. It’s sprinting, hurdles and jumping rather than throw a beanbag into a hoop or do the egg and spoon race.

This year sports day went ahead but parents weren’t allowed to attend, again due to covid. I wondered if knowing that she wasn’t going to have an audience might help Katie but it didn’t. She was completely stressed out about it and couldn’t sleep just at the thought of the practice runs never mind the real thing. It was a bit of a no brainer for me and we told her she could take the day off school rather than do sports day. I just couldn’t see the point of making her attend.

I did get a couple of comments that it’s a slippery slope and if you let a child have the day off school just because they don’t want to do something it sets a bad precedent and they’ll be wanting the day off any time they don’t like something. Children need to learn resilience etc etc. I get that to a point but again this is more extreme than just “I don’t want to”. Every day Katie doesn’t want to go to school, but she still does. She doesn’t like PE full stop but she still does the lessons. She doesn’t like being in the playground but she still goes out there. She doesn’t like being surrounded by loads of other noisy kids but she still sits in a classroom that’s too loud for her. She’s an autistic child attending a mainstream school. She is already showing a stack load of resilience just by showing up every day. When there is an added stress on top of all the usual ones and she says it’s too much I’m not going to force it, especially when she has already struggled her way through three previous sports days.

If we had sent Katie to school for sports day this year I expect she would have had a meltdown or she would have shut down and not been able to take part anyway. She’s only ever had one full on meltdown at school before because she usually manages to keep a lid on things until she’s home or at least out the building. Afterwards she was embarrassed and she was worried about what everyone would think of her. She doesn’t want to stand out and she doesn’t want to feel like the ‘weird one.’ There’s no gain to forcing her into situations that make meltdowns more likely and damage her self esteem.

Being off school meant she got to spend the day with granny and grandad (John’s parents). She did some cooking, granny helped her with some knitting, she played, and she got some of the extra one to one time that she thrives on. Unless her feelings about sports day drastically change in the future I have no problem with her not taking part in any again.

Screen time

Katie gets a lot of screen time and that’s something that me and John have both struggled with a bit, especially John. We (people in general, not just us) are always hearing that too much screen time is bad for you, it limits your social skills, it makes you lazy etc. We used to put limits on the amount of screen time we allowed but now we don’t.

One pretty much unanimous piece of advice we’ve been given about supporting Katie as an autistic child is the importance of downtime or time to decompress. We have been told many times that when Katie comes home from school she needs no demands, no pressure, no questions…just time to do what she wants. For her this tends to mean shutting herself in the playroom with her guinea pigs and the laptop.

Sometimes yes Katie watches stuff on the laptop which serves no educational or social purpose. Don’t we all, that’s fine. Everyone needs to switch off and watch crap sometimes. But it’s so much more for her than mindless staring at a screen. She loves horses and she watches YouTube tutorials on how to check their health, how to groom them, how to tack up a horse, riding techniques… anything to do with horses. She has learned loads. The farm where she has her riding lessons is her happy place and she will sit and watch their YouTube video on loop with a smile on her face. She is also interested in animals in general so will also watch videos about caring for puppies and kittens etc.

Roblox is another interest for her and she spends a lot of time online playing that. There are a number of kids from school who video call each other and play together. It’s a much easier social situation for her than imaginary play at break time or face to face interactions. She doesn’t have to worry about body language or making conversation as they are all just playing and talking about the game and they all have a shared interest.

There is always something for people to worry and moan about. At the moment it’s screen time. For my parents’ generation it was probably “you spend too long on the phone.” Before that it was probably “you spend too much time with your head in a book” whereas now reading is encouraged. So I do worry a bit about the amount of screen time Katie has (and Alice and Matthew) but I’m not going to stop it. I also think it would be a bit hypocritical given how much time I spend looking on my phone. As with most people now my phone is my ‘go to’ for pretty much everything. I use it for social media, banking, reading articles, music, emails, arranging social stuff, ordering school lunches, photos, shopping etc. Whether we like it or not we live in an age of technology so as long as we’ve got parental controls in place and the kids aren’t watching inappropriate content that’s just how it is. They’re not about to turn into robots. They still like going to the park and swimming and bouncing on the trampoline and a bunch of other wholesome stuff!

2 thoughts on “Spare the rod spoil the child

  1. I just want to commend you for the job you are doing as a parent. Parenting is not easy and parenting a child with special needs that are often not understood is even more so. I think parenting a child with autism needs a mixture of challenging the child to deal with some of their issues and yet also knowing when and how much accommodation they need to get through the day. There is a lot of discernment needed for the individual child to know when to challenge and when to accommodate, and it sounds like you two are doing an excellent job.

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