How the autistic community guided our Christian parenting

Kate Morris writes about how autistic people have guided her family as they learn how their autistic daughter experiences the world in her unique way. They see how parenting differently, guided by biblical truths, can be beautiful. She is working to bring her research and experience together in a book.

I bounced and hushed my screaming baby, hot tears dripping from my eyes as I desperately prayed that she would finally sleep for the first time that day. But her unrelenting crying continued. Finally, I strapped her to my chest and walked the streets, eyes hidden under dark sunglasses so no one would guess how hard I’d been crying. Why won’t she sleep? Every day was the same. She was several months old and none of the parenting books were working, the Tresillian centre for sleep didn’t help and following the advice of friends made no difference. It was my first lesson that this precious little one needed to be parented differently.

Over the following years, my husband and I gathered parenting wisdom from books, other parents and podcasts – anywhere we could find – especially seeking out Christian wisdom. Yet we largely used this as a springboard from which to jump into different parenting decisions that suited our family. Years after she was born, our daughter was formally identified as being autistic, and we suddenly understood why we needed to approach everything differently because she experienced the world differently.

I felt like theatre curtains had been drawn back for me, revealing a performance I had never guessed was there.

Since we started diving into the world of autism, autistic adults have been wonderful guides as they share their experiences with us. Many moments of new understanding for us have sparked conversations with our daughter, who has thus grown in her understanding of our perspective as we’ve come to understand hers. She uses her remarkable gift of language and expression to elucidate her perspective to patiently help us to grow.

Early in our learning process, I remember listening to a fabulous podcast, 1800 Seconds on Autism, a BBC show hosted by two autistic people. The two hosts described how certain paint and patterns on walls and floors could make them feel sick and dizzy and shatter concentration. Wall paint? I felt like theatre curtains had been drawn back for me, revealing a performance I had never guessed was there: a dimension I’d been unaware of. A paint’s colour, the brush strokes, the way it diffuses light and its interaction with objects around it come together in an emotive performance: loud, captivating and potentially sickening.

I now had a new aspect of the world to be curious about, and I asked my daughter for the first time if the paint in her classroom was pretty. “We have one horrible wall!” she told me, enlivened with emotion. “I can’t look at it; it makes me sick. If I accidentally see it, it gets stuck in my head, and it takes ages to put it out of my mind.” Until then, I thought I knew all the factors that made school exhausting for a child. Parents are told that children will adjust and soon not be so exhausted. Yet those who experience things this way might be using up energy and patience just on the walls!

Autistic people have been key in helping us understand autistic exhaustion.

Understanding the difference in energy expenditure has been a key factor in understanding an autistic person’s experience of the world. The autistic community has been our guide in this. One child psychologist, who herself is autistic, explained to our family that autistic people often have no filter: they need to process everything. So I can walk into Kmart to buy a lunchbox and glance around at the shelves to find it. I may get distracted sometimes, but it’s not an overwhelming experience. My body has experienced some walking, which is all that contributes to my energy expenditure.

Yet the psychologist explained that, as an autistic woman, she needs to process everything. She also has strong, sensory sensitivities. So, the same task for her might be almost debilitating. For her, the trip might be more like this: the fluorescent lights are bright, one flickers, sending bolts of bright white and flashes of dark. The song being played brings sharp, aching memories of a wedding where it was also played, though now the friends are divorced – when did she last see them? Her ears begin buzzing loudly from the volume of the song. An old man glances at her, making accidental eye contact, and blasts of ice shock down her spine. The man’s shoelace is untied and flips ominously back and forward as he shuffles past. The label for the plates on a shelf has a spelling error: “pates.” She adjusts it in her mind and brings a mental image of the label with her as she continues to adjust it. A crash explodes nearby, erupting like a bomb in her head. She turns, shaking, unable to speak, to see that her bag has bumped a drink bottle from the shelf. With her heart still pounding, face flushed with shame and shock, she knows she’ll replay that moment hundreds of times in the hours to follow. She hurries to the lunch boxes, grabs a box and dashes for the registers. Noise. People. Beep. Can’t sit down. Beep. Music. Where’s her payment card? Beep. Bright tiles. A sock slipping down. Beep. Eye contact. Beep. The waft of garlic breath. Beep.

Naturally, she is utterly, deeply exhausted.

God is the designer of difference. It’s what makes fruit salad delicious.

Autistic people have been key in helping us understand autistic exhaustion. A friend of mine described it as having the flu without the sore throat. It’s not merely feeling tired. It’s a physical and mental absolute floodgate – not ideal conditions for doing some maths homework, tidying a bedroom or answering a parent’s questions about the day. Things they can normally do might become simply impossible at that time. Recognising and believing this allows us to help our daughter navigate the world and give her space to recover when she is exhausted.

Our job as parents isn’t to make our daughter more like others. We love that our daughter has shown us another way people experience God’s creation. God is the designer of difference. It’s what makes fruit salad delicious, forests fascinating and children unique. How beautiful that human perceptions of the world also differ, so we see and appreciate things about God’s creation differently.

Many parenting books left us feeling alone and misunderstood until we realised our family is different and that there is a community of people with different families too. There are fascinating books, online groups, community groups, podcasts, videos and more. Still, there’s room in this space for more resources from a Christian perspective based on biblical truths, so I’m writing a book to be part of this conversation.

This year, I’m a fellow with Anglican Deaconess Ministries, working to turn my past research and experience into a book for parents of neurodivergent children. My book will be grounded in the Bible and include varied experiences of, and insights from, Christian neurodivergent people, parents of neurodivergent children and Christian therapists who work with neurodivergent children. My prayer is that this book informs, injects hope, gives insight, encourages prayerful reflection and ultimately helps families embrace difference to benefit our families and the glory of God. Would you like to follow this journey? Then head to my website, “An Extraordinary Normal”.

*I have used identity-first language when referring to autism (“autistic person”) in accordance with many current recommendations by Australian organisations run by autistic people.