Why I Let My Neurodivergent Children Off the Hook

Guest Post by Amanda Diekman

One of my parenting gurus made me believe that holding boundaries with kids is the most important thing. I find myself holding firm to all kinds of bizarre things that I say but don’t mean –

“I told you if you didn’t keep two hands on the grocery cart I would put back those Oreos.”

“If you even look at your brother, we’re leaving!”

I begin to even annoy myself with my rules and expectations, and I am drowning in follow through. My neurodivergent children are determined to exploit my painful obsession with consistency, pointing out each rule that another breaks and insisting on punishment.

Our family culture becomes warped around this oppressive cause-and-effect parenting. We are all trapped. My 6 year old, who will soon be diagnosed autistic with a PDA profile and ADHD, begins to say, “Fine, kick me out of the family!” to show me that no matter what punishment I send his way, he won’t care.

He will not bend.

A family of five, all smiling and wearing winter coats
Amanda’s family, smiling and bundled up in the cold

I look in the mirror and do not recognize this person, a familiar experience. I have always struggled with masks. For nearly 4 decades I have wanted nothing more than to be normal. I have blurred any harsh edges of my personality, ceased having opinions, and cultivated all my most universally likable traits to ensure that the largest number of people will like me at all times.

It is exhausting to be so likable all the time. I hold myself to the highest standards and never let myself off the hook. The punishment for breaking a social rule is the pain of feeling “different,” so I am a careful critic of my own abnormality.

I will be liked. I will be safe. No one can hurt me if I do not have any “me” to be hurt.

I hold boundaries everywhere, with my kids, with myself. I never cease playing the part. For 38 years, I believed that this universally likable mask was my Self, and that the immense effort it took to play that part was simply my fault.

Not knowing what it felt like to inhabit anyone else’s skin, I assumed that others were trying just as hard, but made it look easier. They played their parts and did it better. I was simply not coping well with the reality of being human.

A pot with a plant growing sideways. There's a window in the background.
A plant growing sideways out of a pot. There’s a window in the background.

As I investigate my 6 year old son’s possible neurodivergence, I begin to make lists. A notebook filled with lists, lists of lists. Every page has one of the DSM criteria for diagnosing autism written at the top, and listed below are the pieces of evidence.

Except instead of being examples from my son’s life, they are examples from mine. My research has brought me to the inescapable opinion that I might be autistic. I am terrified. I am discovering just how desperately I want to be autistic, and my terror is not of this new label.

I am terrified that I will lose another way to belong. I am desperate not to fail at being this type of human too.

A deep blue sunset with silhouettes of trees and homes at the bottom
A deep blue sunset with silhouettes of trees and homes at the bottom

In the summer of 2021, just a few months apart, my son and I are both diagnosed with autism. My 6 year old received his diagnosis from cold and clinical Duke University Autism Center, complete with a thorough PDF document and uselessly general parenting recommendations.

Four months later, I get my diagnosis over zoom from a perky and fidgety middle aged woman who is autistic and ADHD herself, complete with nervous laughter, rambling answers and a deep kinship. When I look at myself in the mirror now, a new self blinks at me, freshly awakened, bleary in the bright light of day. An autistic self, filled with self-knowledge, dreaming new dreams. Dreaming of letting it all go.

I begin with my children. “I think I’ve made a mistake,” I share. “I don’t think rewards and punishments actually work. I think you are doing your best all the time,” I say aloud, nodding along with my own words. I am doing my best, all the time.

Maybe life doesn’t need to feel so hard. Maybe we are delicately calibrated machinery trying to navigate a world not built for us. Maybe we all need to let each other off the hook. When my child says, “No I won’t do it!” I begin to say, “Ok!” I slow down enough to decide if that thing really matters to me at all, and if it doesn’t, I get to drop it. After all, I’m creating a new world. 

The rules I played by for 38 years don’t need to bind me anymore. They never made me feel alive. They weren’t written for me. And it’s my job to rewrite the story so my children get to thrive, starting with our little family, our world. 

I used to believe that kids desperately need to know that adults are in charge, and that if I wavered or backed down, I would do irreparable harm. Now I believe that kids desperately need to know that their adults are with them, that we see and honor their effort, and that we can change for them.

Now I let my children off the hook all the time, and in their eyes I see myself without a mask. Unafraid to break the rules. Unconcerned about being liked. Because I like the woman I see through their eyes—a strong and courageous mother who will transform the world for them.

Amanda Diekman is soulful presbyterian pastor, spiritual director, and autistic contemplative. She lives in her favorite city in the world Durham, NC, with her favorite humans, a husband and three young humans. They live in the North Street community, an intentional residential community with neighbors of all abilities.

While she rarely does well in complex social dynamics, she loves the complexity of the spirit and the complexity of simple questions. Amanda comes alive while woodworking, doing yoga, walking at the beach, and snuggling her kids. You can find her writing at amandadiekman.net and on Instagram at simple.soulful.amanda.

2 Replies to “Why I Let My Neurodivergent Children Off the Hook”

  1. Enjoyed your story and feel for you as I came to parenting with he same approach. My son also has PDA, and my inability to help him conform and parent him in the way others expected nearly broke me. Our church reported us to social services and I felt the sting of failure. I believe I too am on the spectrum and having been used to succeeding at everything feeling that others deemed me a failure at parenting led to depression and chronic fatigue. We are grateful to God for the pda society who redrew our expectations and helped us understand my son’s problems with heirarchy and roles. We socialise with people who won’t give us funny looks if my child doesn’t use a knife and fork at 11. The ability to have confidence in your own judgement of a situation is something that has now been a blessing to me in all areas of life . We realised that feeling safe and loved was the best thing we cud try to foster in our kids. And guess what, my child who never u derstood consequences has a deep trust in god as his helper. I’d choose that any day than being able to display good manners. You sound like a great mum. Thank goodness your son had you x

    Liked by 1 person

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