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    Conquering Negative Thoughts When Parenting Autistic* Children

    Topics: First Person Autism, Advice for Parents and Caregivers, Parents

    Every parent thinks negatively from time to time, but the negative and often fear-filled thoughts parents of autistic children struggle with can be off the charts because they are so different from the typical worries of other parents. Conquering these negative thoughts is not easy, but very important for the sake of your happiness as well as your autistic offspring’s. 

    My grandson came home from school one day and told me that in his transition class he’d learned about catastrophizing and how to combat it. The timing could not have been more perfect, as I had just started working on the research for this article. His teacher shared some great tips on how to turn negative thoughts into positive ones, which we, as parents and caregivers of autistic children, can apply to ourselves also. 

    First, the definition of catastrophizing in Merriam Webster’s dictionary reads: to imagine the worst possible outcome of an action or event; to think about a situation or event as being a catastrophe or having a potentially catastrophic outcome. Diana Winston, in an interview in O, The Oprah Magazine, put it like this: “Our minds are constantly in the past or the future—we’ll ruminate on what’s too late to change or catastrophize about what hasn’t happened yet.”

    For autistic parents, negative thoughts of regret over the strategies and therapies they did not employ in the past that could have improved the prognosis for their child, or fearful thoughts of what will happen to their child in the future, can be a constant battle and source of anxiety and stress.

    Learning not to catastrophize and to think more helpful and positive thoughts can reduce stress and anxiety and is necessary for the parenting of autistic children who themselves often struggle with negative thinking. It is not easy for anyone to overcome negative thoughts, and parents of autistic children may have to work even harder at training their brains to think positively, but it can be done. 

    father of children with autism looking overwhelmed

    Here’s how:

    1. Reduce anxiety and stress.

    A vital and first step in managing negative thoughts is to focus on reducing stress and anxiety, which almost always result in a negative mindset. Mindfulness and meditation can be very helpful in this. It is very important to build relaxation into your daily schedule. Taking just five minutes to do some deep breathing exercises, even if you must hide in the laundry room or restroom to do it, can make a huge difference. (See Cut Yourself Some Slack for other ideas to help you take some time to relax.) 

    2. Don’t try to stop negative thoughts. 

    Someone once wisely told me, you cannot beat the darkness out of a room. The only way to conquer darkness is by letting the light in. Trying to tell yourself not to worry and stop your negative thoughts doesn’t work. It will only make you think more about them. Instead, acknowledge what you are worrying about, so you can deal with it.

    3. Challenge your negative thoughts.

    Once you acknowledge the negative thoughts, you must challenge them and change the narrative. First, write down the thoughts you have. For example, “My child will never be able to communicate and have meaningful relationships.”  Then ask yourself these questions:

    • What is the evidence for this thought?
    • Is this thought rooted in facts or feelings?
    • Would my child’s teacher/therapist view my child’s prospects differently?
    • What would I tell another autism parent if they shared the same worry with me?

    The goal in asking yourself these questions is to get you from a negative mindset to a positive one. From the negative, “My child will never be able to communicate and have a meaningful relationship” to the positive growth mindset of, “My child is not able to communicate and have a meaningful relationship yet!” 

    mother hugging child with autism

    4. Work through your worries.

    Autism parents often don’t open up about their worries and fears because they are so different from other parents’ concerns and feel others won’t understand. It is important, however, to acknowledge and address them. Here are some examples of the most common worries parents and caregivers of children on the spectrum struggle with, me included, and how to work through them:


    • Am I doing enough for my child? I recently quit my part-time day job to be able to spend more quality time with my grandson and be more available for him. I would do absolutely anything for him to make sure he can live a full, happy and successful life, and I still sometimes feel I don’t do enough for him. From talking with other parents, I know I am not the only caregiver of a child on the spectrum who goes through this. When you feel like this, it is important to remind yourself that it’s perfectly alright to not be perfect and that all you can do is your best.


    • How will my child cope with the transition to adulthood? One of the fears my now teenage grandson has about the future, which he shared after I asked him what kind of things he catastrophizes about, is that he may never find someone who will like his interests, or think that he’s attractive enough. Of course, I reassured him and quipped that he’ll be “a real catch” for any girl. I had to explain that idiom to him, as he visualized himself being caught like a fish, which resulted in some good laughs. These fears may be some of the same worries you have for your child. While there are no concrete answers to these questions, lighthearted humor can be a good coping strategy and way to help you and your child see the bright side of an uncertain or worrisome situation and keep you moving forward.  


    • What will happen when I die? This is one of the most difficult and biggest fears autism parents face: Who will be there for them when I am gone? No one knows them as I do. Of course, they have family and staff at school who know their habits and little quirks, but I know their heart. Will anyone love them as fiercely as I do? My heart will break to leave them. These are tough questions. The best thing to do is to face them and prepare for the future the best you can. Besides encouraging and teaching your child skills towards their independence, different organizations, such as Organization for Autism Research in the US and Sense in the UK,  can help with advice on this. Preparing the best you can now, will give you some peace of mind. 


    All parents worry about their children, but the negative thoughts and fears of autism parents are as unique and complex as their children themselves. Worrying about all the ways your child is different from others, or all the things they will miss out on or will never do because of their diffability is only natural. But as you recognize and challenge negative thinking, you can change the narrative and take a big step toward a happier life. 


    (For more positive parenting strategies, read The Power of Optimism When Raising a Child on the Autism Spectrum.)


    Do you have any questions, or tips on how to conquer negative thought patterns? Tell us in the comment section below.


    We hope you enjoyed the information in this article. STAGES also offers free downloadable resources to support teaching and learning with individuals with autism. Start with our free Picture Noun Cards and see our collection of other downloadable resources here!


    *A Note from Stages Learning: Whenever possible Stages Learning Materials uses the preferences stated by an individual as to whether to use identity-first (“autistic person”) or person-first (“person with autism”) language. In a poll of 21,000 people, 69% preferred identity-first language and 31% preferred person-first language. A thought piece by Northeastern University indicated that in the majority of cases autistic people themselves prefer to be called autistic people, whereas caregivers and professionals prefer the wording “people with autism.” We agree with the Northeastern article that the group being talked about should be able to dictate what they are called. As we move forward we plan to alternate our usage in our written materials and in our speech. We recognize the importance of this issue to so many people and we plan to revisit this issue in the coming years with the expectation that preferences will likely continue to shift and we will do our best to reflect these changes. We welcome your thoughts on this issue. Please feel free to contact us

    Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan

    Written by Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan

    Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan is an author, public speaker, and Certified Autism Resource Specialist from the Netherlands. After working abroad as a teacher and humanitarian for 25 years, she moved to the US in 2006 and assumed the care of her then 6-month-old grandson, Logan. There were signs of autism at an early age, and the diagnosis became official in 2009. She has been his advocate and passionate about promoting autism awareness and acceptance ever since. Logan is the inspiration behind the Autism Is...? (tinyurl.com/5aj73ydd) series of children’s books she initially wrote for him and later published. Ymkje currently lives in California with her now 15-year-old grandson, and besides writing, presents autism training workshops for early childhood educators, parents, and caregivers. You can read more about her story in her newly released book, Autism on a Shoestring Budget, [Early] Intervention Made Easier (https://tinyurl.com/ysxhxbmf). For more information, you can visit www.autism-is.com, www.facebook.com/AutismIs, and/or contact her at autismisbooks@gmail.com.