Are Your Dreams for Your Autistic Child Serving You or Them?

Listen to Your Child's Dreams for Himself

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Most parents have very specific goals for their children—and even more specific goals for their children with autism. Often, those goals start with "I want my child to be happy." But a typical adult's version of happiness may not have much to do with an autistic child's interests, abilities, or desires.

Why Parents Set Unrealistic Goals for Their Autistic Children

Many parents of autistic children set short and long-term goals for their child without spending much time discussing the subject with their child. This makes sense to a degree: children with autism may have a tough time envisioning or articulating specific ideas about what they want from life. Even teens or adults on the spectrum may have a hard time coming up with a clear vision of the future. And goal-making requires a degree of abstract thinking and executive planning that may be unreasonable to expect.

Problems arise, however, when parents fill in any blanks with their own visions of what is desirable, interesting, comfortable, or preferable. That's because the hopes and dreams of a neurotypical adult are rarely the same as those of an autistic child, teen, or young adult.

In fact, parental goals are often created, not with their actual autistic child in mind, but with the hope (sometimes subconscious) that their autistic child will somehow morph into a typical adult. Many parents, in fact, hope and dream that their autistic child will change to the degree that she will fit into society's norms and expectations.

Common Goals Held By Parents of Autistic Children

Many parents with autistic children express the desire to see their children happy. Their definition of happiness may look something like this:

  • "I want my child to have a nice group of friends."
  • "I want my child to live independently."
  • "I want my child to get married and have a family."
  • "I want my child to behave and think normally."
  • "I want my child to hold down a good job and advance in her career."

As you may have noticed, every one of the goals above—all of which are commonly expressed by parents of autistic children—are built around preferences and abilities that require strong social communication skills, solid executive planning skills, a preference for spending time in social groups, and quite a bit of personal ambition. They also assume a desire to find a permanent romantic partner and (ideally) produce offspring.

People with autism have many strengths, skills, interests, and desires. But because they are autistic, their strengths, skills, interests, or desires are not likely to revolve around social prestige or the desire to impress others. In fact, many people with autism actively prefer solitude to groups. Some people with autism do pair up, but many find intense intimacy to be overwhelming. What's more, it's a rare person with autism who is ambitious in the usual sense of wanting to impress and outdo his peers or parents.

Appropriate Goals for a Child With Autism

So, what are the appropriate goals for a child with autism? As with everything else related to the autism spectrum, the answers will vary, and they will depend upon the strengths, interests, and desires of your individual child. Here are some tips for getting started:

  • Complex social goals, such as finding a romantic partner, may not be particularly important to your child. The reality is that relatively few people on the autism spectrum do marry, though many develop solid friendships.
  • Few people with autism have strong executive functioning skills. That means that it may never be possible for them to live completely independently. Of course, your child can improve her adaptive living skills, but it's likely that she'll need at least some support for planning, time management, bill paying, and other important tasks.
  • Many people with autism have passionate interests that can become the foundation for hobbies or even careers. It's a good idea to keep your child's interests in mind when thinking about goals.
  • While it's natural for parents to want their children to overcome or outgrow their autism, the reality is that autism is a lifelong diagnosis. Many people with autism develop strong skills in many areas, but they will still be autistic and will have at least some of the symptoms associated with the diagnosis.
  • People with autism are often happy in settings and situations that would be unpleasant for neurotypical people. Many people with autism, for example, value routine and sameness while many neurotypical people enjoy novelty. Many people with autism are content with basic jobs while their neurotypical peers long for greater challenges. These preferences are reasonable and should be considered when setting goals.
  • Perhaps most importantly, as the parent of a child with a disability, you probably spend a great deal of time advocating for and thinking on behalf of your child. When it comes to setting goals, though, it's your child's strengths, interests, abilities, and preferences that should count the most.
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By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.