Autism and the “helicopter parent”

Every now and then someone will write an article – or a comment on an article – that pins the cause of autism on “overprotective” parents. These parents – also known as “helicopter parents” – are so involved in their kids lives, the argument goes, that they warp them into being autistic. (Almost the opposite of the old “refrigerator mother” theory, since this new “cause” is the result of too much – not too little – love and affection.)

flyingwoman1Before I go any further here, let me say emphatically and without qualification that I don’t believe helicopter parents – or any parent, for that matter – can cause autism by spending too much (or too little) time and attention on their kids.

I do think, however, that helicopter parents may play a potentially significant role in the ever increasing number of autism diagnoses.  Consider this definition of helicopter parents from wikipedia:

Helicopter parent is a colloquial, early 21st-century term for a parent who pays extremely close attention to his or her child’s or children’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions…. Helicopters parents are so named because, like helicopters, they hover closely overhead, rarely out of reach, whether their children need them or not.

Who better to recognize early signs of autism and bring them to the attention of a doctor for evaluation. So in addition to “increased awareness of autism” as a possible reason for the increased number of diagnoses, we should also consider that “increased awareness of your child” might be contributing to the number of people who have their children evaluated. Which in turn will lead to a higher number of diagnoses.

The interesting thing here, at least to me, is that once a child is diagnosed as autistic the natural tendency of parents, especially those who are already “helicopter parents”, is to become even more involved in their kids lives, to become more overprotective. The nature and structure of our society, especially our education system, builds on this natural tendency to make it for all intents and purposes a necessity.

The challenge for parents is to figure out how to remain involved, as an advocate, in their child’s life without trying to live their child’s life for them. They need to figure out how to evolve, over time, from being a helicopter parent to a young child to being a slow-parent to a young adult.

If only it were as easy to do as to say.

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10 thoughts on “Autism and the “helicopter parent”

  1. When I have kids I want to be an attachment parent, but that’s not the same as a helicopter parent or a parent that is too permissive.
    middle ground is always good. And gentleness.

    Also I don’t see how it’s a bad thing to get involved with ones kids as long as one gives them to tools to make their own decisions.

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  2. @Synesthesia,

    I like the idea you have with “attachment parent” and agree that it is not a bad thing – and is in fact – a VERY GOOD THING for parents to be involved with their kids, at all stages of their lives.

    Of course, the level and nature of the involvement should change depending on the age of the child (and maybe the age of the parent). I see it as kind of a progression from total control (infants) through coaching/mentoring (adolescents/teens) and ultimately – if we are lucky – to being friends when they are adults.

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  3. I think the key is that parents are able to separate themselves from their child, and not see their child’s every action as a validation (or rejection) of themselves.

    One of the issues that comes up for autism parents is that parents may feel guilt about their child’s autism, and fling themselves into “fixing” the problem. If the problem is “fixable,” they see themselves as heroes for having cured their child; if the problem isn’t fixable, they feel even greater guilt, depression and anxiety – which can turn either inward or outward (toward their child or toward the people who work with their child).

    Lisa

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  4. @Lisa,

    Parents have always had pride in their children, and the success/failure of children has always had an impact on the reputation of a family or the family name. Parents seeing “their child’s every action as a validation (or rejection) of themselves” – which is, I think, at the very root of being a “helicopter parent” – seems to be a much more recent phenomenon.

    As I said in the main article here, I think that has contributed to the increase in the number of diagnoses. Thinking about your comments, I would say that this might also be contributing to the rise – in both quantity and determination – of the “warrior parents” in their war on autism (and autistics?).

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  5. Brett – absolutely, I think this is the case. And making it even more intense are several factors:

    parents invest huge amounts of time, money and energy on selected “cures,” into which they pour their heart, soul, hopes and dreams. They can’t afford to seriously doubt their efficacy.

    parents are urged by certain public figures to become “lion-like” in their ferocious advocacy for their child. this pushes parents to feel marginalized and constantly on the offensive – a difficult place to be, emotionally.

    parents feel that their identity is wholly wrapped up in being an “autism parent” – which gives them a place and a community, but also pushes them into the place where their child defines them.

    IMHO, wholly defining oneself as a “parent,” and living on one’s child’s needs, accomplishments or personal achievements, is emotionally dangerous, both for the parent and for the child. That’s goes double or even triple for parents of kids with autism, for whom the pressure to become wholly engaged with the “autism world” can be overwhelming.

    Lisa

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