The Unexpected Path: Buddhism and parenting an autistic child

Walking with my son

To those of you who are struggling with doubt about meditation practice, if you believe that your life conditions are too intense, too chaotic for practice to bear fruit, I would like to offer some reassurance. At age three, my son was diagnosed with autism. It is distressing to see your child unable to cope with everyday situations, to see them overcome with fear and anxiety to the point of real violence, to not be able to socialise with other families in ways you’d once taken for granted, to view the future with deep uncertainty. But most of all, the diagnosis brought me face to face with my own conditioning, my own insistences, my preferences for life to unfold the way I wanted it to. The ideal I was holding of a serene and tranquil path evaporated a little more with each seeming catastrophe. Yet I clung to it. “How will I find peace in the midst of this?”

In time, I began to learn that the practice is not dependent on outer conditions. Adversity teaches us this. Practitioners of stoicism have a saying that “the obstacle is the way.” Day to day, letting the mind settle on the breath, the body, or awareness, practicing metta or compassion, I could collect the mind after a stressful ordeal or start the day with a buoyancy that would provide valuable armour later on. I also began to notice the impermanence of difficult situations. “This too shall pass,” is a common refrain among parents of kids with additional needs. I learnt about dependent arising, and how suffering arises through a chain of causality—a chain that can be interrupted by mindfulness. Without mindfulness your child shrieks and, literally before you know it, aversion is fully in control of your mind. You crave for things to be different. Rumination, recrimination, doubt, and despair pile on. With mindfulness, you hear the shriek, see the unpleasant feeling tone arise, feel the pull of old patterns and, unexpectedly, something else can happen instead. Equanimity. Your perception of a situation softens.

Christina Feldman often says that “it is in the classroom of the hindrances that the awakening factors are cultivated.” In the midst of difficulty true resilience arises. It can’t arise anywhere else. We’re often presented with images of self-possessed meditators at pristine retreat centres or on beaches in Thailand but anything can be an object for awareness. The lotus grows out of the mud; the practice happens right here. My life conditions are very far from being the toughest, your own challenges are quite likely far greater. In fact, I have learnt to consider myself extremely fortunate. My son is beautiful and amazing. What a privilege to help this wonderful person come into being with as much safety, security, and love as I can offer. With compassion I realise the difficulties my son faces are far greater than my own, yet it is beautiful to see him walking his own unique path. Perhaps we can too.

Resources

If you’re interested in Buddhism and meditation, the following books and websites could be useful.

Websites

Insight Hour — Joseph Goldstein’s podcast: relatable and accessible.

Sayadaw U Tejaniya — This Burmese abbot teaches a way of practice that particularly suits Western lay practitioners. Free eBooks.

The House of Inner Tranquility on YouTube — Exceptionally clear descriptions of the path from Paul Harris.

Dharmaseed — Vast archive of talks from teachers of early Buddhist traditions.

Books

The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation, Richard Shankman.
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, Joseph Goldstein.
Satipatthana: A Practice Guide, Bhikkhu Analayo.
Don’t Take Your Life Personally, Ajahn Sumedho.
Seeing That Frees, Rob Burbea.
When Awareness Becomes Natural, Sayadaw U Tejaniya.

Stoicism and parenting an autistic child

You might be interested in my post about stoicism and parenting.

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