This guide aims to help young people to understand a parent who is or who they think is autistic. There are different types of autism, including Asperger syndrome and pathological demand avoidance.
What is autism?
Autism is a disability which affects around 700,000 people in the UK, that’s more than 1 in 100 people.
Autistic people find some things difficult, such as:
- telling people what they need, and how they feel
- meeting other people and making friends
- understanding what other people say and think.
They may have repetitive behaviour and like routines and can find it difficult when plans change.
Autistic people may have sensory differences making them over or under sensitive to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours. The may also have problems with body awareness and balance.
No two autistic people are the same as they have their own personalities and life experiences. Also, autism affects people in different ways.
Many autistic people aren’t diagnosed until they are adults, due to their difficulties being missed in childhood. Some may have sought an official diagnosis in adulthood, where others will have read about autism and decided they probably have the condition but feel they don’t need a diagnosis.
How will my parent's autism affect me?
Having an autistic parent could affect you and your family in several ways. Here are some situations we hear about:
My mum doesn't seem to know if I'm feeling a bit down. Why is that?
Being autistic can make it hard for someone to understand what others are thinking or feeling. For example, you may be upset and your mum might not notice, as she finds it difficult to understand facial expressions and body language.
Your mum may find it difficult to realise that you need a hug. This doesn't mean that she doesn't love you, she just hasn't understood how you're feeling so you need to tell her.
Autistic parents may also not realise that their children need to be told that they love them, they may expect you to know this.
I get a bit confused at times, as I'm not sure when dad's actually speaking to me.
You may find that your dad doesn't look you in the eyes when talking to you, autistic people can find this hard to do. Or he may seem to stare and this can feel awkward and embarrassing.
Neither of these mean that your parent isn’t listening to you or considering what you are saying.
Why doesn't my Dad seem to understand what people mean when they talk to him?
Autistic people can take longer than others to take in what people are saying. They may need time to think about what's been said before answering.
Parents on the autism spectrum would find it helpful if people spoke to them in short, clear sentences and allowed time for them to process the information before expecting a response.
My dad is obsessed with trains and talks about them all the time
It's quite common for autistic people to have an intense interest. Some people will love the same thing all their lives, while others will have phases of different special interests.
Although it may seem blunt, it may be useful to your autistic parent if you give them clear guidelines of when they can and can’t talk to you about their intense interest. You can explain that you have other things you need to do, such as homework.
Mum keeps on at me about school all the time and shouts at me if I don't do things straight away
Lots of young people feel pressure from their parents about school as their parents want their children to get a good education. They may also expect their children to help out around the house. However, if they spend a lot of time talking about how hard you should study or asking you to do chores it can be stressful.
Autistic people have a rigid thought process and can be too focussed on a particular object, person or situation. To help with this you could try talking to them and explain that, whilst you know these things are important, you need to do other things and have some free time. It make take time for them to understand this. You can help by giving examples, keeping what you say short and clear or writing it down so they can refer back to it.
Remember that autistic people can have a literal understanding of speech so if you say you will do something "in a minute" meaning "quite soon" your parent may be expecting you to do it in a minutes time. It is important to be clear and exact when answering your parents.
My dad's really cross when I play the music I like
Some autistic people love music, some don't. Some have a particular taste in music that is different to yours.
It’s important to think about any sensory sensitivities that your parent may have when playing your music. If a parent gets really cross about it or puts their hands over their ears, even when it’s not very loud, it may be that they have very sensitive hearing. This can be very painful.
Try to compromise, perhaps only play your music loudly when you know they are out of the house or listen to it through headphones.
Dad gets really stressed about me socialising and I find it all a bit difficult to deal with. What can I do?
It's possible that your dad doesn't see the need to socialise, so finds it strange that you want to have a group of friends.
You bringing friends home could make a parent anxious as they may not find it easy to have strangers in the house. It will be a break from their routine and hard to deal with.
Try talking to your parent about what you get out of friendship such as companionship, a chance to talk, laugh and share common interests.
It can help to:
- check with your parent that it's OK to go out giving them clear details of where you're going, who with and when you'll be back
- prepare your parent for your friends' visits by telling him when they're coming, for how long and what room you will be in
- explain to your friends beforehand that your parent is autistic. This can help them understand some of the things that they may find a little unusual in his behaviour and why he may be really strict about you being home on time.
Mum gets stressed if something unexpected happens
Autistic people have a need for routine that helps them make sense of the world around them. They can become anxious if there is a break or a change to their usual routine.
Your parent may have rules they need to stick to and will find it easier to cope if they have warning of any changes. This can be hard, as you may like to be spontaneous.
Life can make life especially difficult for you if you break one of their needed rules, especially if it’s through no fault of your own. In this circumstance, wait until your parent is calm before talking to them about why the rule was broken. Explain that some things are out of your control, for example being late home due to a late bus or car breakdown.
You could write down some examples of things that could happen that are out of a person's control.
Acknowledging your needs
Growing up with an autistic parent can be lonely, confusing and scary. Your parent may have meltdowns as a result of their autism and associated difficulties.
You may be angry that your friend's parents are different to yours and feel that this is unfair.
Similarly, you may be growing up in a family where you are the only person who isn't autistic, leaving you feeling isolated as your emotional needs are not being met.
It’s important that you talk to other people about your experiences. Confide in an adult such as a friend, family member, teacher or pastoral support worker about what is happening at home and ask for their support.
Alternatively, you could contact childline to discuss your concerns confidentially or the NSPCC if you are being neglected. Remember to explain that your parent is autistic.
Getting some support
If you are responsible for caring for your parent without proper support then contact Carers UK.
Read more about caring for a parent.
Further help from our charity
If you want to speak to or email someone about your own situation, you can contact the Autism Helpline.
Growing up in an Asperger family by Maxie Ashton.
Something Different About Dad by Kirsti Evans and John Swogger.
My Parent has an Autism Spectrum Disorder A Workbook for Children and Teens by Barbara R. Lester.
Teenissues website offering advice for teenagers about lots of different issues, including school, family life and friendships.
Babble a forum for young carers.
Last reviewed: 21 November 2016.