By Jennifer Palmiotto, Psy. D., LMFT
Host of Love & Autism
We are inundated with the need to plan for just about everything in our lives. Expectant mothers create elaborate birth plans. New parents begin planning for their child’s future by saving for college. We plan just about everything, from disaster to our daily schedule. And of course, we plan for our demise by creating a will and trusts that will protect our loved ones even in our passing. All of this planning is related to our strong desires to create happiness and to help our children be comfortable. Yet, when parents reflect upon what they really want for their child’s lives—most often it comes down to LOVE.
Parents want their children to feel their love, to find meaningful friendship, to fall and stay in love. Its curious though….the thing that we want most, we leave up to chance.
Perhaps the reason we don’t create a plan for our children’s relational health is because we don’t know how to do it. Furthermore, when our children are born with neurological differences such as being on the autism spectrum, planning for relational wellness may seem to take a back seat to medical needs, therapy appointments, and educational concerns. Creating a road map to love and relationships will allow your child the most opportunity for the things that we all hold so dear. Any expert in planning would tell you, if you don’t have a plan it’s never too late. Create one.
So, how do you create a road map to love?
Understand why it’s important.
For us at Love & Autism, we believe that the primary goal in life is to love and be loved; this doesn’t change with the neurological differences associated with autism. Love is an innate and fundamental part of being human. Each of us deserves satisfying relationships at every age, stage, and ability. Although this may sound touchy-feely, scientists concur that love is essential. Loving relationships improve physical health and decrease mental health issues. Within our autism community, we hear dire statistics about increased risk of suicide, isolated adults having no sense of community belonging, and scary stories about bullying and abuse. Most of us have cried and worried about our loved ones on the autism spectrum.
Is it even possible?
We’ve all contended with the ridiculously inaccurate representation of persons on the spectrum being loners, not wanting relationships or needing human connection. After 16 years practicing within this community, there is not one part of me that says that persons with autism are incapable of love or can’t have fulfilling relationships. We have so many public examples of persons with autism leading fulfilling lives, including incredibly strong bonds with others. Almost a year ago, Anita Lesko and Abraham Talmage Neilsen were married at Love & Autism, sending a strong message of hope and inspiration. Love & Autism’s 2016 speakers demonstrate that love is possible for all–David and Kristen Finch have a neurologically-mixed marriage with two beautiful children. Alex Plank and Kirsten Lindsmith have been friends for most of their adult lives.
What can you do?
Every person is unique and brings different gifts and shortfalls to each relationship. This plan is meant to be flexible and non-exhaustive. It is meant to create thought, not additional worry, and to inspire small change that leads to big dreams.
ONE: Start with You
Did you know that your relationship with your child is a mirror to every future relationship? A healthy parent-child relationship is based on trust and safety, where a child feels heard and understood. Having a satisfying relationship with a parent allows a person to grow a healthy attachment to future loved ones.
So how do we improve interactions so that our children feel our love? Loving wholeheartedly begins with setting your intentions. When interacting with your child with autism, don’t try to “get” something from them or coerce a specific outcome. Allow authenticity, spontaneity, and notice what your child is contributing. Rather than question, share with your child your experience of being with them.
TWO: Create a Sense of Belonging
Whether your child is 2 or 52, you can improve wellness through better relationships. Even if your child seems to not notice others or doesn’t yet show you that they value relationships; trust that they do. Find people and places that believe the same things about your child, that she is worthy of interaction and social experiences.
Perhaps your baby is all grown up and feels insecure and unlovable because he hasn’t had his first kiss. Know that he isn’t alone. Autistic self-advocate Daniel Wendler understands the power of platonic relationships. He encourages each of us to be the friend that we want for our child to be to someone else. As a young child, Wendler describes sitting alone at lunch. Would you be the person that would sit by him? Befriend him? If you think you would, live this way right now.
Engage with neurodiverse individuals in equal and respectful interactions, open your heart to friendships with diverse thinkers. Alex Plank, autistic self-advocate, encourages spectrumites to push themselves socially, to never give up. Plank’s dating advice includes setting mini-goals and practicing that skill set until comfortable. From starting conversation to going in for the kiss, practice and self-reflection are essential.
THREE: Find Healthy Autistic Examples
Role models inspire and motivate us. Perhaps you take guidance from previous teachers. Maybe you read daily words of wisdom from an online personality. When you were younger maybe you looked up to a public figure. The fact is we all have and need role models. There is no better way to fully understand that the neurological differences associated with autism don’t preclude autistic people from living full lives. Take Chou Chou Scatlin for example. Her mother knew she would be someone great, so she rejected doctor’s advice to institutionalize her.
As a performer, Chou Chou Scallion dazzles as an autistic valentine both on and off the stage. When we raise our children with neurodiverse role models, we send strong messages that they are not broken and do not need to be fixed. With positive examples, one day your child will be a role model for others. There is so much to learn from other’s stories and experiences. Their path may not be exactly the same as your child (age of diagnosis, verbal ability, etc.), but each of us walks more comfortably in our own experiences with guidance from others.
FOUR: Protect from Harm
Each of us has hurt and trauma from our past. We understand how it feels to be rejected. We can still feel the sting of not being included. We know the shame of being told we are stupid. Unfortunately, for many living on the spectrum, these experiences are commonplace. As parents, trust your intuition and build layers of protection from persons or systems that send harmful messages. Recognize hidden or more covert messages of incompetence or exclusion. Listen to your child’s subtle signs that he or she may be experiencing harm. When “behaviors” emerge, consider why first. Communicate empathically with your child rather than trying to “treatment plan” the emotional experience out of them.
FIVE: Its Never too Late
In our community, we are almost beat over the head with the idea of early intervention. We are inundated with the notion that there is a window that is closing. This sends shivers of fear down parents back as they race against this imaginary deadline of development. For Michael Tolleson, he lived his life as an outsider. Going in to his fifth decade, Tolleson discovered that his early difficulties were best described as autistic. With this new understanding, he also discovered amazing new artistic abilities. He has painted well over 600 gallery quality paintings in a few short years. Tolleson now uses his years of wisdom and artistic wonder to create a more supportive and loving world for those with autism.
SIX: Personalize Your Road Map
Consider what your child’s core values are and identify your own. Live by these values, and create daily experiences that nurture each of you to live from a place of meaning. Trust that each of us is stronger when we are allowed to live our lives in a heart-centered way.
*Jenny Palmiotto, Psy D., LMFT (#47573), is the Clinical Director and owner of The Family Guidance & Therapy Center of Southern California. She is also the creator and host of Love & Autism: A Conference at Heart. Jenny is an outspoken advocate for change within the autism community. She challenges the dominant discourse about autism. Every person needs to feel valued and live a worthwhile life. Jenny is passionate about walking besides her client’s as they live fulfilling and productive lives.