Autism parents - great detectives in the making!

If the police force suddenly ran short on detectives, I would highly recommend that they approach autism parents as potential recruits. Why? Because parents of autistic children are often faced with behaviours that are difficult to understand. Although parenting by its very nature calls for all of us to wear our detective hats from time to time, it’s fair to say that autism parents get more practise.

If we look closely enough, we’ll always find reasons for behaviours. The challenge we face though, is that those reasons aren’t necessarily obvious. And that’s where the detective bit come in handy. Knowing why helps us to understand and manage situations more effectively. In a recent email, one Mother told me that “although it might be easier if it were different, it's been so helpful for me to know that there are reasons.” 

So, what are some of the “why’s” when it comes to autistic behaviours?  

Loss of order, control and predictability

On the whole, autistic children have more rigid thinking styles. This means they will have a strong need for order, control and predictability. But what happens when order, control and predictability aren’t available?

Have you ever been lost in a dodgy place and unable to find your way out? I know I have. And what I felt was a rising sense of panic. My entire body was on alert. Heart pounding. Eyes darting. Palms sweating. If, in that moment, you had tried to get me to do just about anything besides find my way home, you would not have succeeded. Needless to say, you wouldn’t have seen the best version of me. Quite the opposite in fact!

That feeling that we experience occasionally in response to unusual situations can be triggered in autistic children by seemingly small things. The minutia of everyday life is enough to unsettle some children. Just moving from one activity to another or from one room to another can be a problem. Tasting new food or food that is different from usual can lead to an outburst. So, when you see your child lining up their toys or getting upset because someone has moved their possessions, look behind the behaviour to the why. This is an attempt to restore order and gain some control. This is your child managing their anxiety. And if you notice an increase in these inflexible behaviours, get out that detective hat and look for possible reasons. They may not be staring you in the face, but they will be there.

Sensory issues 

Another aspect of autism is sensory sensitivity. Older children and adults give us some insight into their experiences of sensory information when they describe how it feels and the extent to which these sensitivities can affect their coping abilities. Everyday noises and bright lights can be painful. Labels and certain clothing textures may be terribly uncomfortable. Various foods may make your child gag. And some children are extremely sensitive to smell.

It can be hard for us to understand when we do not have these same reactions. To put yourself in your child’s shoes, think of how you feel when wearing a really scratchy top or being exposed to a particularly strong and distasteful smell. For me, that’s the fish stall at the local market. My response is to escape as fast as possible. What we know from those who can explain their sensitivities, is that they are extremely draining and exhausting. A whole day of uncomfortable noise levels, light and texture can be debilitating. So, if you notice that your child is showing signs of stress, reach for your detective hat and consider the sensory make-up of their environment. You just may be on to something!  

Communication challenges

We know that autistic children have difficulty communicating with others. When it comes to knowing what your child wants or needs, the detective hat is a must. Some children, for example, use mainly echoed language. On the surface it may not appear to have any meaning. But if you delve a little deeper, you may begin to notice that there are phrases which appear in certain situations. Young autistic children are not always able to generate novel language. As such, they may “borrow” phrases from other sources like TV and use these to communicate. So what may seem meaningless may well be meaningful!

There’s no doubt in my mind that parents are the experts when it comes to their child. Understanding the behaviours your child shows takes time and careful observation. There is a saying that goes, “when the why is clear, the how is easy”. I agree with this sentiment but think a little tweak is needed for our purposes …. “when the why is clearer, the how is easier”.

To you and your detective powers!

Linda Philips

Parenting Autism


Parenting Autism supports parents of young autistic children with coaching and training. Interested in knowing how we can help? Contact [email protected] 



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