Parenting Styles to Avoid When Raising a Child With Autism

Bringing up a child with autism can be challenging, and, in some cases, overwhelming.1 Children with autism don’t communicate, play, or behave like their neurotypical peers, and their behaviors can be confusing, frustrating, or frankly upsetting to parents.

At the same time, children with autism have strengths and abilities that can only emerge when a parent is tuned in and willing to engage in a way that works best for their child. This means that, when you have a child with autism, it’s not always best to just go with what feels natural to you as a parent.

Child cute little girl and mother holding hand together
Sasiistock / istockphoto

You may need to modify your parenting style or natural preferences to meet your child’s needs. In other words, you may need to consciously avoid these parenting styles that can quickly undermine your relationship with your child on the autism spectrum.

Helicopter Parenting

Helicopter parents hover over their children, watching and reacting to their every move. They leap in to help when a problem appears on the horizon; they intervene to smooth every path; they insist on special treatment for their progeny.

Helicopter parenting is less than ideal for any child, as it makes independence and self-determination especially difficult to achieve.

Parents of children with autism are prone to helicopter parenting because they worry that their child with autism will run into problems they can’t resolve—and, of course, that’s perfectly possible.

But if helicopter parenting stunts the development of typical children, imagine what it does for children with autism. Unable to learn by observation and example, children with autism must learn through direct instruction and by actually doing.

When you step in to do their work, you’re denying your child the opportunity to understand what’s needed, experience the challenge of trying, enjoy the thrill of success, or gain the knowledge developed through the process of failure.

Competitive Parenting

Any parent who’s been part of a Mommy and Me group knows all about competitive parenting. Whose baby potty trained first? Said the first word? Is taking the most classes, learning to dance or sing, playing peewee soccer, or studying Chinese?

When you have a child with autism, it can be hard to avoid feeling that your child is being left behind. But when you buy into competitive parenting, you are certain to develop a sense that your child is not up to par and that you, as a parent, are probably to blame.

As you can imagine, the outcome is a feeling that neither you nor your child is good enough. The impact of such feelings on a child with autism may not be obvious, but they are real.

Hands-Off (Free-Range) Parenting

Some parents believe that their child should be allowed to follow their own pursuits and interests without parental interference. That works well for certain typical children who are self-directed, self-motivated, and eager to interact with others. It’s not, however, a very good choice for a child with autism.

While every child certainly needs and deserves “down” time, children with autism really do need regular, focused parental engagement. That’s because, in most cases, children with autism need your help to actively learn to pretend, socialize, converse, ask questions, and investigate the world.

Without another person to help them build these critical skills, children with autism can become increasingly withdrawn and self-focused—and less capable or desirous of engaging in the wider world. They’ll also have less opportunity to build on their strengths and achieve their own potential.

Perfectionist (Tiger) Parenting

Yes, some children thrive with parents who absolutely insist upon straight A’s, top athletic performance, perfect grammar, and ideal table manners. Those children are unlikely to be autistic.

The reality is that children with autism, while they may have many strengths, are likely to have a very tough time with many typical childhood expectations. Their verbal skills may be compromised, making high grades and perfect grammar almost impossible to achieve. They may have difficulty with physical coordination, making athletics particularly tough.

Of course, it’s important to have high expectations, even for a child with special needs, but make those expectations too high, and you and your child are in for tears and frustration.

Permissive Parenting

As the parent of a child with special needs, you may feel that your child should have no expectations placed on them when the child is not at school or therapy. After all, it’s tough for autistic kids to function in school, and they deserve a break.

You may even feel it’s unreasonable to ask your child to complete household tasks, learn to calm themselves, or control their behavior. The unfortunate result of this kind of “do whatever you want” parenting teaches your child to learn habits and behaviors that will create serious problems down the line.

Autism does make some things more difficult, but in almost every case children with autism can do a great deal if they are asked and encouraged to do so. When you set the bar low, or offer your child with autism too little discipline, you are actually making it more difficult for them to understand or live up to high expectations.

Understanding your child’s challenges is one thing; assuming your child to be incompetent is something very different.Benefits of Rules and Discipline for Children With Autism

Frenetic Parenting

Parenting Styles That Don't Work With an Autistic Child

Since they woke up this morning, your preschooler with autism has had five hours of behavioral therapy, an hour apiece of speech and physical therapy, two hours of parent-guided play therapy, and four hours of school.

As soon as your child falls into an exhausted sleep, you jump on the Internet to find yet another therapeutic class, program, activity, or resource to add to the schedule. With so much going on, your child with autism has no opportunity to practice what he’s learned, to actually meet and get to know another child, or to simply do what children do—play.

Rather than frantically searching for and engaging in therapies and activities, consider the possibility that a few hours a day of calm, unfocused parent-and-child time might be just the thing your child needs to grow and thrive.

A Word From Verywell

Me and my neurodiverse family: 'It's chaotic, frenetic and hilarious' |  Family | The Guardian

No parent is perfect, and parents of children with special needs are under more pressure than most. Some autism parents are coping with severe behavioral issues that can even be frightening. That means you may be more overwhelmed, tired, frustrated, or anxious than the average parent, and have fewer financial or emotional resources to bring to the table.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s more than okay to reach out for respite or support, whether from other family members and friends or from local organizations that provide services to families with disabled members. Remember that, important as your child is, you also deserve time and care.

The unexpected plus of parenting with autism

Having autism as a parent might seem impossibly challenging. But a generation of parents with the condition is showing that it can be an advantage — even when their child does not share the diagnosis.


It’s going on 8 p.m., and Kirsten Hurley’s house in West Cork, Ireland, is a scene of happy chaos. The children — Alex, 9, and Isla, 4 — have been promised chocolate if they stay out of their mother’s hair while she talks with a journalist via Skype.

But the bribe doesn’t seem to be working — at least not with Isla, who climbs up her mother’s back and somersaults over her shoulder, cackling with delight.

“This is something that drives me nuts,” Hurley says. The nonstop and often intense sensory inputs that come along with being a parent — being grabbed at, being climbed on, listening to the drone of “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom” — can be difficult for her to handle because she has a mild form of autism sometimes known as Asperger syndrome.

Hurley was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at age 23, when her son was about 14 months old. Alex received his own autism diagnosis about a year later. (In the United States, Asperger syndrome was subsumed into the larger category of autism spectrum disorder in 2013, but in Ireland and elsewhere it remains a distinct diagnosis.)

In some ways, their shared condition has made it easy for Hurley to parent her son. “Alex always kind of seemed really logical to me,” she says. Isla, by contrast, does not seem to be on the spectrum, and her ordinary preschooler behavior sometimes baffles her mother. She has an insatiable need for attention, from Hurley’s perspective, and she might do something like reject a cup of orange juice moments after specifically requesting orange juice. “The things she does that I think are really abnormal because Alex didn’t do them are actually, like, typical children things,” Hurley says, laughing.

Hurley handles many such puzzles of being a parent on the autism spectrum with self-awareness and a healthy dose of humor. But at times, when she has reached out for help she has been misunderstood. Hurley once mentioned to a new therapist she was seeing that she has Asperger syndrome. The therapist asked if she loved her children — “which wasn’t very helpful,” Hurley says. “People have these kinds of misconceptions about people with autism, that they don’t feel emotion.”

Hurley is not so far out of the ordinary as one might assume: A surprising number of people diagnosed with autism are raising children. An online survey recruited more than 300 mothers with autism, suggesting that there are probably thousands of parents diagnosed with autism worldwide, and perhaps hundreds of thousands or millions without a diagnosis. More evidence comes from Facebook groups, messaging platforms and blog comments, where parents compare notes and share problem-solving strategies.

Autism can pose challenges for parenting, their stories indicate. In addition to dealing with sensory overload, helping a child learn social skills can be difficult for people who struggle with social interactions themselves, for example. But autism can also provide valuable parenting skills, especially with a child who is also on the spectrum.

Still, as far as the scientific literature is concerned, these parents might as well not exist. It’s only in the past few years, since scientists have become interested in studying adults with autism, that they have begun to ask questions about this group of parents. “I think what we’re seeing now in the 21st century is a recognition that people with autism are perfectly capable of participating in all aspects of life, but they may have been doing that almost invisibly — and that includes parenthood,” says Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Parents Gillian and Lizzie sit cross-legged in a playroom. Gillian holds the hand of her daughter, Izzie. The scene is playful.

Dance with me: Gillan and Lizzie Drew with their daughter Izzie, at their home near Christchurch, England.

The lack of research so far not only offers these parents little support, but also leaves society unprepared for the larger wave of people diagnosed with autism who are just coming of age and may be considering having children. Without enough information or support available to them, these young people may conclude that becoming a parent is just not an option for them.

“It breaks my heart to even say those words, but that’s the message that I’ve heard: ‘Does having autism or Asperger’s, does that mean that being a parent is just not a thing for me?’” says Matthew Lerner, assistant professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics at Stony Brook University in New York. The experiences of Hurley and many other parents who are pioneering what it means to be a parent with autism could temper that worry with hope.

Possible parents:

The idea that a person on the spectrum could be a parent was long considered nearly impossible. When Edward Ritvo submitted a paper on the subject to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 1988, he titled it “Eleven possibly autistic parents.” Without that caveat, he says, he is pretty sure it would never have been published.

“That paper was rejected eight times by eight of the major psychiatric and medical journals,” says Ritvo, now professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Nobody believed it. They didn’t believe the parents had it, that autistic people could grow up and marry and have children.”

At the time, autism was perceived as a severe disorder, usually accompanied by intellectual disability, and the overwhelming emphasis of research was on children with autism. Yet the parents who appeared in that brief paper had characteristics that are now easily recognizable as features of autism: repetitive behaviors such as arm flapping and rocking back and forth, unusual rituals such as arriving exactly 30 minutes late for every engagement, social disinterest, a lack of eye contact.

Further publications from Ritvo’s team made it clear that it wasn’t an anomaly for people on the spectrum to have children: A 1994 paper described 14 people with autism who had 54 children among them. Most of them were parents of children that Ritvo’s team had seen in the clinic. Ritvo and his colleagues had become interested in these parents because they wanted to show that autism is a physiological condition with an inherited basis — and not, as was widely believed through the 1960s and 1970s, the result of psychological trauma.

In the small family kitchen, Gillian holds her daughter, Izzie. The mom, Lizzie, washes dishes.

Family feeling: Both parents are on the spectrum; their daughter Izzie does not seem to be.

These observations helped launch the study of autism genetics. Meanwhile, the lives of these parents went unexamined. Even now, no one knows what proportion of adults with autism have children, what proportion of their children might end up on the autism spectrum, or how common it is for children with autism to have a parent who also has the condition. And those basic questions don’t even begin to explore what life is like for parents with autism: their struggles with parenting, the strengths they bring to the task of raising children, how their hopes and fears evolve as their children grow up.

Virtually the only empirical study of the experiences of parents with autism is an online survey of 325 mothers diagnosed with autism worldwide, conducted by Baron-Cohen’s team. The unpublished data capture responses to 89 questions devised with input from women with autism. They include topics such as pregnancy and childbirth, the social experience of motherhood and the strengths and weaknesses of parents with autism.

The mothers with autism in the survey were more likely to report prenatal and postnatal depression compared with a group of 91 typical women raising at least one child with autism. They were more likely to feel isolated, and judged by others; many said they didn’t have anyone to turn to for support, and often felt unable to cope with parenting.

For some parents, the prejudice and stigma surrounding autism can have dire consequences. Damon Matthew Wise Âû and his wife saw firsthand that parents with autism are vulnerable to extra scrutiny from child welfare agencies. Wise Âû is a pioneer of the self-advocacy movement by people with Asperger syndrome and lives in Shannon, Ireland. His wife, Karen, is also on the spectrum, as are their three children, who also suffer from chronic ailments such as food intolerances, insomnia and skin conditions.

Since their youngest child was born in 2003, Wise Âû and his wife had occasionally used respite care, or temporary childcare, through the foster-care system for a few hours or a weekend. By mid-2009, with the encouragement of social workers, the younger two children were spending a few days out of the home each week. But in early 2010, the couple learned that child welfare authorities had started efforts to put all three children into full-time, permanent foster care. According to Wise Âû, the authorities never gave any legal justification for this plan. He says the episode reflects prejudice on the part of child welfare agencies that people on the spectrum aren’t suitable parents. Finally, in May 2010, the agency dropped its plan.

Wise Âû’s oldest son wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger syndrome until he was almost 16, though his parents had suspected he was on the spectrum since before he was 2 years old. Doctors and social workers “thought we caused him to exhibit autistic traits, by learning it from us,” Wise Âû recalls. The doctors suggested that the couple wanted their son to be on the spectrum — as if they had Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychiatric disorder in which people feign illness in their children in order to draw attention to themselves.

The couple also felt excluded by support groups for parents raising children with autism. In those groups, they sometimes encountered the sentiment that the condition is a tragedy, or a disorder to be cured. “We have been kicked and shunned for being parents who are autistic with autistic children,” Wise Âû says. (They set up a Facebook support group of their own, where talk of cures is discouraged.)