Co-parenting and autism: an extended version
Earlier in the year, we shared our tips for navigating co-parenting when you and/or your children are on the autism spectrum in the Source Kids Magazine. In this article, we discussed how to manage the initial stages of creating a co-parenting arrangement, the experiences of mums and dads with autistic kids as well as tips for autistic parents.
Feedback we've received the magazine was published has showed us that there's a severe lack of information in this area for autism families. That’s why we’ve decided to delve deeper into strategies and supports that can make co-parenting easier for autistic children, teenagers and parents as well as their non-autistic parents, partners, siblings and carers.
As autism is ultimately a different way of seeing, processing and experiencing the world, it’s no wonder that traditional co-parenting advice can often be of no help. Ultimately, there's no one-size-fits-all approach and every family will be different in what works and doesn’t work for them.
Keep reading to find out more about:
- Starting out
- Making the transition
- Advice from an autism dad
- Autistic teenagers and young people
- Co-parenting as an autistic parent
- Your next steps
Unfortunately, the early days of a co-parenting arrangement are rarely smooth. There’s a lot of change occurring at a time of heightened stress and emotions, meaning it can be difficult things like therapies can become more difficult to commit to. It’s also a period of breaking difficult news to lots of people, perhaps most importantly, your children.
Children with autism may not respond to changes in their routine and lifestyle in the same way as a non-autistic child or their non-autistic siblings. For example, when told their parents are separating or divorcing, they may have an under-reaction, overreaction or delayed reaction. They may also struggle more with the changes to their routine that a separation or shared custody arrangement can bring.
Although autistic children may struggle more with change than their non-autistic peers, it’s important not to keep them in the dark. They should still be told that you and your partner are separating in a face-to-face conversation and their questions and concerns should still be addressed in an age-appropriate way. Sometimes it can be helpful to organise calming activities for your autistic child after the conversation so they can their emotions in a safe and supported way.
Even if your autistic child may seem to be coping with the news of your separation, it’s important to have some extra support on hand during this period of change. Autistic children can sometimes internalise their thoughts and feelings to make it appear as though they are handling a situation as a form of ‘masking,’ which can prevent them from accessing the support they need. Whether this is through additional therapy, peer support or spending time doing fun activities, a little extra help can go a long way.
Making the transition
Arriving at a successful co-parenting arrangement involves lots of transitions. Whether it’s one parent moving to a different house, changes to therapies and supports or the introduction of a custody arrangement, a stable routine is a work in progress for both the children and parents involved.
Here are some tips for the different transitions involved in co-parenting:
- Ensure the focus is on the children involved, both neurodivergent and neurotypical. Consider what the needs of your children are and how you can continue meeting them in a new custody arrangement, as well as address the extra support they may need during this period.
- Try to minimise changes to a child’s school, therapies and social opportunities as much as possible, particularly if they support your child’s health and wellbeing. Having familiarity during this period of change is crucial for your autistic child.
- Update relevant people in your child’s life about your new custody arrangement or process of creating one, such as their teachers or support workers. It’s important that professionals that support your child are aware of life changes they’re experiencing so they can continue to effectively support them.
- Try establishing regular and extended visitation periods to maintain consistency for your autistic child.
- Work around the routine of the autistic child if you’re the visiting parent and avoid disrupting it as much as possible.
- Ensure the child can contact both parents at any time during a visitation (where appropriate).
- Try to minimise changes to routines as much as possible or introduce them as gradually as possible.
- Communicate changes as early as possible and in age-appropriate terms. Check in frequently with the child and allow them to express their thoughts and feelings in a way that works for them and without judgement.
- Use visual and other aids to help the child visualise the change (e.g., a calendar where their new routine is clearly displayed, a chart with emotions so they can indicate how they’re feeling when they’re unable to communicate, etc.)
- Where possible, allow the autistic person/people to be involved in the decision-making.
New partners and siblings
- Establish what role your new partner will have in your child’s life.
- Inform your partner about your child’s strengths and needs as well as their challenges and triggers.
- Tell your autistic child about your partner well before their first meeting.
- Make the first meeting between your child and your new partner brief and check in with both parties separately afterwards.
- Be prepared for your child to react to your new partner in an inappropriate or negative way. Make a plan with your new partner beforehand outlining how you’ll both respond if this reaction occurs.
Caring for yourself
- Set aside time for hobbies, relaxation and socialising where possible (i.e., when your child is visiting your co-parent).
- Attend support groups or participate in online support groups with other co-parents.
- Identify your support network and reach out them when you need to.
- Consider professional support, even if you have 'good days' amongst the bad.
An autism dad's advice
Paul is the father of 21-year-old Ineka, who is on the autism spectrum. He shares his advice to other co-parents and single parents of autistic people:
- Research, research and research some more. The autism spectrum is a huge one and every person on it has different needs and supports. The more you know, the less you have to pay someone else to know.
- Set up your NDIS support as soon as possible. Learn how to use it as best you can and refer to resources, advice and support as often as you need to.
- Get a disability permit for your car and don’t be ashamed to park in a disability spot. When your child is having a meltdown or shutdown in a shopping centre, you’ll sometimes have to make a quick exit. That two-hour trip to the shops may have to become a four-hour trip to accommodate for the speed your child walks and processes things. Allow yourself the freedom to take your time.
- Get a Companion Card – the benefits can be phenomenal at the right time. With free or discounted access to areas such as gyms and even concerts, it’s a handy resource for parents and carers.
- Become a problem-solver – if you don’t have that skill, phone a friend or expert and ask.
- Join parent groups, whether that’s face-to-face or online. If you can’t find one that fits, make your own – you’ll eventually find someone who gets you and your family. Finding, creating and attending social events with other autism families means you don’t have to mask or apologise for being different. You might also meet people you’ll remain friends with for decades to come - I still meet with parents of kids who went to preschool with my child twenty years later.
- Take a break – find a way to get respite and do something for yourself. There are groups and organisations that offer respite care that you can look into at any time. Take some time to not care for a little while and fully recharge your batteries.
Things to keep in mind
- Plan for the future as best you can (i.e., by creating residual income). Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t.
- Celebrate any wins your child has, no matter how old they are or how small the win seems. I used to high-five my child when she ate a pea, now I high-five her when dinner is made.
- Love your autistic child always and never give up, no matter how hard things get.
Autistic teenagers and young people
Teenagers and young people typically gain a greater desire to have independence and control over their lives. The same is true for autistic teenagers, who should still be encouraged to express their feelings and explore their independence, even if they may require additional support to their neurotypical peers at times.
Teenagers are often able to have a greater say over custody and visitation arrangements, and may want to trial different options to discover what works for them. Although this can be difficult, frustrating or even upsetting, it’s important that you allow your teenager finds a living situation that works for them. This desire also means they’re giving thought to how best to spend time with their parents, which is a good thing!
The teenage years are a period of enormous change, so minimising disruptions to an autistic teenager’s routine is crucial. Allowing for necessary changes to happen as gradually as possible, with frequent and open discussions about these changes, will help your teenager feel supported and empowered.
Although relationships between parents, carers and their teenagers can be challenging, especially during a stressful period such as a separation, it’s important that teens feel safe and supported by all of their caregivers. Create time for regular check-ins where they can share their emotions and experiences without fear of judgement, and encourage them to be involved in decision-making that affects them where appropriate.
Co-parenting as an autistic parent
Perhaps the most overlooked experience when it comes to co-parenting is that of autistic parents. Many parents and carers realise they’re autistic when their children are diagnosed, as they’re able to recognise the signs of autism they share with their children. Some have had a diagnosis for most of their live and others may be undiagnosed for a variety of reasons.
Autistic adults can have similar challenges to autistic children in that adjusting to major lifestyle changes and difficult news can require additional support. With this extra assistance, an autistic parent can continue to care for their child or children while also looking after themselves.
Here are some of our strategies for co-parenting when you or the person you’re co-parenting with is autistic:
Making a plan
- 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.
- Avoid disrupting the plan or changing it at late notice. Surprises can be highly stressful for an autistic person to navigate, which in turn could affect your children’s wellbeing.
- 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.
- Prioritise sleep and mental health, particularly if you’re the autistic person. Poor sleep and mental stress can quickly cause autistic burnout, which is detrimental to your wellbeing and can negatively affect your ability to care for your children.
Things to remember
- Direct and regular communication is crucial for all parties, autistic and non-autistic.By prioritising it, you’ll ensure your co-parenting arrangement meets both of your needs and the needs of your children.
- A little extra patience goes a long way. It will take longer for an autistic person to adjust to new routines and expectations, so keep that in mind if you’re a neurotypical person.
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. For more information about autism, check out the following links:
Have you just receive an autism diagnosis, or do you know someone who has? Autism: What Next? is made for you. Check out this free digital toolkit which provides evidence-based information, resources and further support for autistic people with a new diagnosis and the people that love and care for them.