Will she live independently? Will he find a job? Can he go to college? Will she find a friend? Will he have a family? Will he ever know how to have a 'real conversation?"
As parents, we want to know that we have done everything in our power to help our children have a purposeful life. So we hang on these outcomes to purposeful living that appear to be society's standard of what having a purpose looks; marriages or jobs. But what if we dug in a little deeper and softened those inner voices filled with fear about what a child with autism will or will not achieve in their future?
This isn't about lower expectations, 'just' let your kid be happy, or a simple solution to quell your deepest parental fears. It's about really looking at what it means to live purposefully. What if we asked the real question?
What if we asked ourselves, "How do we as human beings live purposefully?"
What Does it Mean to Live a Purposeful Life?
In neurotypical cultural norms placed on autistic people, purpose is too often equated with goal attainment. In special education, goal attainment is reduced to IEP goals and measuring outcomes; the attainment of some skill or the reduction of some other behavior. Parents and educators alike are caught in this trap of hustling for measurements. Data is worn as a badge of worth. "On 4 out of 5 occasions" of something or other has become common language in our community. Goal mastery is seen as an assurance that 'everything will be alright.' To be honest, none of it matters.
None of that mastery criterion, none of the counting, none of the reporting matters. Skills + Reduction of Symptom DOES NOT EQUAL purposeful living; now, or in your child's future.
When we become outcome-specific with living a life of purpose we perpetuate stigmatization of neurodivergent people. With this outcome-driven meaning of life we send messages to our children that their value is inherently defined by what they achieve, not who they are. By striving for these markers of purpose, we tell our youngest minds that their life is purposeLESS when their lives don’t align.
We do this mostly without knowing, without any cruelty in our hearts. We do it with immense love. We have to disconnect purpose with achievement for this generation of neurodivergent leaders that we are raising.
We Can Live a Purposeful Life!
We can have purpose without a paycheck. We can live purposefully without a ring on our finger or a degree on our wall. We can find our meaning while garnering zero likes on Instagram or without anyone else's validation. We can find our meaning without any sort of outward societal stamp of approval.
This may feel inauthentic coming from a person that has a degree, a paycheck, a marriage; the things that my neuro-privileged cultural norms have indicated make me worthy, whole and purposeful in today's self-worth economy. But no matter our circumstance, I have found we all have to work hard to shed external expectations in order to find personal meaning.
Living purposefully is about living in a way that has personal meaning.
This meaning does not need to be culturally constructed. A person's purpose does not need to be understood within an ableist world view of attainment. One's purpose only needs to be relevant to one person. A purposeful life is one where the liver of that life feels their soul awake. My soul is no more awake when I hang a degree than it is when I hang my clothes to dry.
My soul is alive when I am doing what is personally meaningful to me.
Parenting a Neurodiverse Child with Purpose
So, how do we parent in a way that allow our child's soul, their purpose, to feel safe enough to be present?
First, we discard the mentality of groundwork. We don't punch a parenting time clock to help our children launch their purpose in the distant future. We do it now. We let our children's lives be filled with personal meaning. We create meaning making moments. We find ways to explore and refine our own purpose. We create space for self-discover. We make room in our own lives for filling our soul. We surround ourselves with people that are living from a place of purpose.
When parenting a child with neuro-differences, this becomes an even greater call to action as the neuro-norms of achievement are scary to reject.
1. Pay attention.
Dr. Brené Brown uses the phrase "pay attention" to describe mindfulness. I love this definition. Pay attention to your child in this next hour. Pay attention to what he touches, what he talks about, what he doesn't talk about, where he goes and how he uses his gaze. Validate these decisions with intentional and kind words. In doing this, our children learn that they are intentional beings making purposeful decisions.
2. Trust in the unknown.
Nothing is certain about parenting or even life in general. Sometimes the myth of raising a child with neuro-differences is that there is more certainty in another child's path. None of us have certainty but we can trust and respect what we don't know and live from this place, rather than acknowledging and strengthening our own fear voice.
3. Live your own life from a place of purpose.
Children learn from everyday moments. Take the time that you need to discover your own purpose and create space in each day to live by this purpose. Whether this is directly in front of your child or whether you are doing this work outside your child's eyes, giving yourself permission to live a life of purpose will support your overall wellness, which in turn creates more comfortable and joyful parenting moments.
4. Create more space when you see your child's soul awake.
Sometimes our lives become scheduled with non-important activities and tasks. These can feel like "shoulds" and we end up moving through life half asleep or burdened by stressors. Examine your daily rhythm and that of your child. Determine if your child has enough space in her life to feel fully awake. Like many of us, we will answer this question with a resounding no.
Then close your eyes and envision a time when you saw your child soulfully engaging within her life and feel the emotions that this evokes within your heart. Hold on to that feeling for a moment and then compare it to the feeling of seeing your child stressed, disengaged, or reluctantly walking through life. Time is always a choice. How we spend our time is reflective of what we find important. Find that time to create those feel good emotion, in both of you. You both deserve it.
Are you a parent raising a child with autism? Do you feel like raising your child, even with years of therapy, is not producing results that lead to quality of life? People with autism are first and foremost people. Each person deserves treatment that is respectful, dignified and understands the values and uniqueness of the individual. At the Family Guidance and Therapy Center we offer help and support for individuals and families with loved ones on the autism spectrum. Call today at 619-600-0683 (CA) or 512-643-4446 (TX) to start a new program that will transform your life and the life of your child.