Parents of children on the autistic spectrum

This post is not restricted to home educating parents, but is about something which a number of people have noticed. Until a few decades ago, disorders such as schizophrenia and autism were thought of as being produced by strange parents. Leo Kanner, the man who first defined autism in the 1940s, came up with the idea of the so-called ‘Refrigerator Mother’, whose emotional coldness produce autism in her child. The fathers too were supposed to be remote and not join in their children’s lives properly. These ideas are now discredited and we know that both schizophrenia and autism have a genetic component and are essentially neurological problems, rather than a result of bad parenting.

And yet, it has been observed again and again that the parents, particularly the mothers, of autistic children are often a bit odd. They typically present as a little abrupt and not empathetic; slightly disconnected, in fact. Now all this goes very much against the prevailing paradigm and so tends to be ignored. When the subject does come up for discussion, it is assumed that because autism can be passed down through families genetically, perhaps these parents are themselves on the autistic spectrum. There is another possibility and it is an idea about which I would like to hear readers’ opinions. The main emotion towards them encountered by the parents of a child in a wheelchair will be compassion and pity. Irritating, yes, but quite understandable; people feel sorry for a mother whose kid is crippled. The main emotion which many mothers of children on the autistic spectrum come across in others can be hostility and disapproval. This is because their children look normal but apparently behave badly. They are often seen as lax and careless parents, unwilling to tackle their child’s supposed naughtiness. This difference in experience must have some effect upon the parents.

The idea which some of those with whom I have worked came up was that this experience of constantly feeling embarrassed about your child might after a few years result in mothers become a little harder and disregarding what others felt and said. In other words, any perceived oddness in such mothers would be a long term reaction to how they are treated by others, particularly other parents who do not understand autism. I have certainly seen one case of a mother who, I knew both before and after having an autistic child, but since this sample could hardly be smaller, (N=1!), I do not feel able to advance it as evidence. Do readers have any thoughts on this? Have others found the parents of children on the autistic spectrum as being a little strange? If so, can anybody come up with an explanation?


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