Stoicism and parenting an autistic child

Nemesis in a Gale. H. J. Leathem, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another school run, another test from the Stoic gods. I had just finished listening to The Stoic Test Challenge by William Irvine, as I drove through the narrow, winding lanes and up to the school where I took two attempts to reverse park under the disapproving gaze of an impatient mum. The Stoic test I had been expecting was underway.

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Irvine explains that the Stoic test is a way of reframing setbacks. Instead of bewailing our fortunes, we see problems as an opportunity to exercise Stoic values of resilience, resourcefulness, patience, and tranquility. We can then take satisfaction from how competently we resolve problems and, more importantly, how calm we remain while doing so. It is a wiser path to meaning and contentment than compensating for our hardships with pleasure, disgruntlement, and entitlement (none of which work). The classic quote is…

To bear this worthily is good fortune.

—Marcus Aurelius

I had been expecting such a test after my wife told me that the route to school had been changed by a road closure. As parents of autistic kids are all too aware, changes to routine—expected or unexpected—can cause your child extreme distress and anxiety. The drive home was to be thirty minutes of shouts and protests, followed by anxious questions. Any answer I gave resulted in an anguished cry. The car filled with white-hot stress, threatening to unravel my composure and attention to the road. In these situations there are few, if any, workarounds. The only resource you have is whatever store of resilience, collectedness, and mindfulness you can access in that moment.

Though I am not an experienced Stoic (just ask my wife), I can already tell that it’s a mindset well-suited to caring for an autistic child—parenting any child, in fact. By framing our vehicular stress bath as a challenge at which I could excel, I had closed the door on self pity and despondency. Reading the Stoics, you begin to agree that it is not an easy, carefree life that ennobles a person. Neither is it wealth, status, and success. What makes us worthy of dignity and self respect is responding to the difficulties we face with as much intelligence, calm, and grace as we can. That is often all we can do.

Autism is not a tragic condition. Autistic people often see the world with great clarity, understanding, and empathy. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these traits are part of our evolutionary future. Parenting an autistic child can be wonderful, absolutely magical, and filled with innocent love. But there’s no denying that it’s tough on some days. Now I’ll offer a few Stoic techniques and discuss how they relate to challenging parenting situations. This all comes from my own experience, and it may be that an entirely different approach works for you and your family.

Negative visualisation

One great benefit of Stoicism is that it can restore us to gratitude. The technique known as negative visualisation entails occasionally reflecting—briefly, not dwelling—that however difficult things are they could be worse. While it sounds morbid, this can in fact be hugely uplifting. We are conditioned by our consumer society and our own neurology to always focus on what we’re missing, and what could be better. This makes us feel bad, and is known as hedonic adaptation. Whatever we do have, we take for granted. Negative visualisation reverses this process.

After reading a few books on Stoicism and practising this technique, I recently started feeling bursts of gratitude spontaneously. In the past, I lived my life always looking to the next achievement, the next possession, or the next pleasurable experience. I had forgotten how lovely and protective an emotion gratitude can be. It is the feeling of being whole, and not needing things to be other than they are. And, stressful car journeys not withstanding, there is so much I am grateful for and so much I have learnt from being the parent of an autistic child. It has shown me so much that is sweet and special in life.

Amor fati

Autism parenting requires Stoicism and engenders a lot of personal growth. The Stoic tenet, amor fati, means “a love of fate.” This isn’t just coping with your fate, it is lovingly welcoming it. What the Buddhists call “radical acceptance”. Bring it on! Your fate is your fate, you might as well embrace it. Better to throw ourselves into the game than sit on the sidelines. Note that this is not the same as fatalism. Change what you can by all means, but recognise the limits of your control. When you accept what’s happening, you can respond from the reality of the situation rather than how you wish it to be.

Make peace with what you can’t control

As I was driving and the kids were still distressed, I reflected that it’s not always in my power to make them happy. My son sometimes asks questions, rejects any answer you give and gets upset. If I could make him happy in those moments I would. But I can’t. As the serenity prayer says, I have to make peace with that. Their emotions will be what they are. Kids must learn the ways of their own minds.

Be humble

The Stoics also counsel us to be humble about our successes. There are always parents around you who are struggling, and you yourself know what it is to look on at happy families while chaos erupts within your own. To be satisfied with our conduct we must be modest. With luck, you become realer. You’re less concerned with projecting an image of having it all under control. You’re less frightened of failure and vulnerability.

Stoicism does not mean ignoring your feelings

It must be said that Stoicism is not, of course, the injunction to ignore your feelings we see in its popular understanding. This would be totally counterproductive. In fact, the greatest breakthroughs I have made as a parent have been in empathising with my kids and acknowledging their emotions and their struggles on their terms. In short, making them feel seen. Self-compassion is also vital. The Stoic way, I believe, is a project for developing self-confidence, and self-mastery, not self-repression. William Irvine makes the distinction that Stoic techniques don’t repress difficult emotions, but make them less likely to arise in the first place. That may be. In my view, we don’t want to shun any part of ourselves that feels upset, angry, depressed. We want to be integrated, whole. Storms will arise; we want to weather them with equanimity. What is required is a mature self-understanding of the emotional landscape, and this is where counselling and Buddhist practice excel. It takes courage to feel our emotions, and courage is a Stoic virtue. This can be a source of immense growth and resilience.

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I pulled up outside our house and turned the engine off. The kids seemed to have settled. I began unloading the bags from the boot, picked up shoes and drinks bottles from the footwells. The Stoic gods threw me a few curveballs there, but the test seemed to be over for now. Here it must be said that, of the two of us, my son is the greater Stoic. As an autistic boy in a neurotypical world, he frequently rises heroically to more demanding tests than I may ever face. The Stoic gods must hold him in high esteem indeed, but that is his tale to tell. So how did I do? I was a little shaken but hadn’t shouted or said anything I regret. Whether it would please Seneca or not, I’m giving myself a pass.


If you appreciated this post, look back here in a few weeks. I’m planning to write about Buddhism and parenting an autistic child.

If you would like to read more about Stoicism, William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life is agreed to be one of the best introductions.

What would Marcus Aurelius tweet?

For my sins, I recently stumbled back onto Twitter. The first casualty of social media is peace of mind—but since I’m also reading about stoicism, which places tranquility as the highest good, I’ve resolved not to use social media to amplify messages of distress and outrage. And boosting these messages is something I used to do quite a lot. It’s not that I’m suddenly indifferent to social and political causes. I passionately believe in many of them. However, it’s not clear that constant fear, worry, and anger are helping us.

For example, in the case of the climate crisis, significant warming seems like a fait accompli. That doesn’t mean we should roll over and let emissions skyrocket but there’s a difference between writing to raise awareness and hosing people down with rage and anxiety. I’m trying to find a way to think and write clearly about these issues, without adding fuel to the fires of grief and anger that are so destructive and counterproductive. This means honesty about a reality that may be bleak at times but it does mean not melting down or abetting emotional contagion. This, to me, seems like an aspect of the Buddhist commitment to Right Speech, samma vaca.

After all, if you want to succeed on “social” platforms, it helps to stoke a little fury or despair. My fledgling tweets about things that interest me or are wholesome, such as Buddhism and Stoicism, are not exactly catnip to our ruler, The Algorithm, but that’s OK. Outrage gets one hundredfold the attention of tranquility. Dopamine is our drug of choice, likes and retweets the variable boons bestowed by our fickle mathematical gods. The result is my timeline veering wildly from being filled with lovely people doing lovely things to a white hot drip feed of toxic rage and worry.

It’s true that emotional rhetoric commands more attention; it’s debatable whether it galvanises people into action. But even if outrage guaranteed action, we must ask ourselves whether that action is worth the price of our mental composure and tranquility. I believe it may not be. Additionally, we must consider the nature of any change rooted in anger. Better to seek change rooted in clarity and calm. Revolutions that start with blood, end with blood.

This isn’t a criticism of people I follow. By and large it’s not normal folk who cause the problem: it’s social megastars who have consistently (perhaps knowingly) played the outrage game. Their furious missives get surfaced disproportionately compared to healthy messages. Perhaps I’m partly to blame, the algorithm has learnt that this is what I engage with. Well, no more. What I’ve read of the stoics inclines me not to allow anger to disturb my tranquility. Likewise, it’s incumbent on me not to needlessly infuriate and distress others, as far as that’s in my power. What would Marcus Aurelius tweet?

Original photo by Eddy Billard on Unsplash.
Marcus’ head: Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Personal computing

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

I have conflicted feelings about computers. As a boy, I loved nature and playing in the garden more than anything. I thought computers were sinister, inherently bad, maybe even evil. Then, around 1990, my parents bought my brother and I an Amiga 500. At first, I was disappointed. What did I want with a computer when I could climb trees? But my parents made seemingly logical arguments in favour of this plastic devil. I could do my homework on it. It would be something to play with on a rainy day. It was fully upgradeable and would go with us through life, a trusted tool and companion. The marketers made big promises.

Well, we did upgrade the machine, doubling its memory from the original 512k. It was hard to know what exactly that improved. I don’t think I ever did any homework on it, though school friends and I thought it was possible to hack into banks through the plug socket somehow. People were talking about computers being connected in a mysterious way. These were the days when, confused at news reports of a computer virus, we would disconnect our internet-free machines from the mains.

But I did play computer games on rainy days, and sunny days. I even tried to make my own computer game by arranging letters in a text document. I knew that the action on screen was esoterically connected to patterns of alphanumeric characters. I thought that maybe if I moved the letters around to resemble the scene I wanted to create, something would happen.

And I wrote things on it. Computers and consoles came and went. Essays, poems, stories, and blogposts were written. I began to earn my living writing, editing, and making things on computers. I made music. I went down social media rabbit holes. Not long ago, I was browsing Twitter in a local cafe, reading a report from an Italian hospital, and realising that coronavirus was set to explode here too. Fuelled by corona uncertainty, it became a habit to check at every lacuna in the day. “What’s happening now? What’s happening now?”

For a while I was writing short poems on Twitter, like haiku. It was great to get an immediate response to my writing. I used to write a poem and wait months if not years before it found its way into a magazine or competition placing. But the social media reward loop can also become addictive, very sticky, and that isn’t very conducive to cultivating mind states useful to a writer or a meditator. One person I followed described Twitter as a gallery of souls. How fascinating and banal to see people’s thoughts flicker into life and soon irrelevance. But a palantír is a dangerous tool. The middle way probably means not having constant, trivial access to it.

Over the past few years, I’ve loved playing Xbox with old friends. There’s something about chatting together while collaborating towards a shared goal. I think it harks back to our early days hunting and gathering on the savannah. Not that I was ever there personally. Even in the depths of lockdown, we were so fortunate to be able to crew a galleon, (try to) survive a battle royale, or frag our way through a tactical shooter. I enjoy the imagination and challenge of these games, and they can be a great laugh to boot. I wouldn’t be without it.

Even so, there’s sometimes a part of me that asks, “Do I really need computers? Would I be happier without it all?” And another part of me is hopelessly enmeshed in it: the wires, the dopamine hits, the shiny promise of productivity, the self image. Will I ever get the balance right? Have computers lived up to decades of hype? Or do the costs weigh too heavily on our attention, on our planet, and the labourers who assemble them?

The truth is that while computers promise so much, every device wants you to enter into an uneven power relationship. We may naively think that hardware and software are simply tools that we control but increasingly they are engineered to control us, to nudge us towards purchases, political candidates, eyeballs on adverts, and “time on site” metrics. So Twitter’s algorithms have learnt to serve you snippets of outrage throughout the day because—thanks to a quirk of psychological evolution—what infuriates you is an order of magnitude more effective in capturing your attention than nice stuff. The games I enjoy increasingly want to hook you in so you’ll spend money on their season pass. They do this through addictive mechanics lifted directly from the gambling industry, such as variable rewards. I even suspect that skill-based matchmaking may be manipulated to keep you hooked by throwing up a mix of easy and punishing games. Are you still having fun?

In many ways computers have isolated us, atomised our work, and made it abstract. In other ways they have connected and empowered us, democratised information, amplified our voices, unchained creativity, and made it possible to work anywhere. I have less doubt that these tools are a necessary, inevitable step in our evolution than I have about their current marriage to market capitalism. Regardless, we’re only at the beginning of a journey towards finding balance in how we use information tech, and figuring out its uncanny ethics *cough* AI *cough*.

I was ten years old when I turned on my Amiga 500. Who knows how many hours I’ve spent personally computing in the decades since. Is there still time to unplug, go outside, climb a tree?

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash.

Urgency to live

How should we live, considering that human history–as we’ve known it so far–may be coming to an end? If the ice caps melt, if the Amazon burns, if the world becomes a hot and desperate place we will lose the narrative of progress and security upon which our choices and values are based. What is the point of our commercial and cultural endeavours when this civilisation is so far out of balance?

Impermanence is nothing new, of course, but previously it was easier to turn a blind eye to the precariousness of life. We could believe the world would always be there, much as ever it was. There have always been parents, governments, schools, employers, and advertisers who are all too ready to give us a game to play to keep us busy. These forces have preserved their momentum but nothing matters in the way we once thought it did. What are the works of Shakespeare when crops fail? Who cares about an ambitious startup? Sporting successes? These things seem to be haemorrhaging relevance. It was ever thus – but now it becomes harder and harder to filter out the roar of emptiness.

To be aware of our finitude is a bittersweet thing. It makes urgency the currency of our times. Urgency for gratification, urgency to act, urgency to fix problems. However, there is also an urgency to live in the present. Whatever else we do, an urgency to show up for life whatever it contains may be the trait that ultimately decides the quality of our lives. This means being present and reflective. It means giving time and energy to things that matter, however we decide what they are. Perhaps this global crisis clarifies what is truly important in our finite lives. It teaches us that we can’t depend on a future that has always been uncertain and indifferent to our designs.

We keep playing the same old games, looking around to see how earnestly everyone else is playing. At the same time, it’s hard to know what’s next. Can we give up consumerism or will we continue destroying nature? Do we want economic growth or economic contentment? I find this very hard myself and frequently ruminate on what kind of device will make my life easier — usually when stressed out by those very gadgets.

So what do we really need as human beings? This is where the humanities can be restored to their rightful place after decades of devaluation. You could say that Shakespeare’s plays matter more than ever, especially to the individual mind and heart. Art has an inward effect. It can enrich our appreciation of life beyond the urge for sensory satisfaction and conspicuous consumption. It can make sense of our relationship to the world, to ourselves, and to each other. And art is often less destructive than other things we can engage with. The carbon footprint of reading a poem is smaller than many outward-bound activities but the personal reward over the long-term can be much greater. Art, literature, music, psychology: we may value these things more as a society in years to come, rather than seeing them as luxuries.

Meanwhile, in the 2,500 year old Buddhist tradition, we find the Pali word “samvega”, often translated as “spiritual urgency”. In this unpredictable world, meditators have always been chastened not to waste time but to practice meditation as though their life depended on it. To seize the moment. Ironically, I avoided my meditation bench to futz around with this piece and enjoy my favourite (unpeopled) view in the world, above. Even so, looking out at the horizon and finding myself actually where I was taught me a brief lesson in taking things as they come, and not trying to get anywhere but where I am. I was able to put down my ambitions and neuroses for a second and realise some very basic things about how I want to experience the world. It reminded me that even if the future is uncertain there is always this moment–only this moment–in which to live.

So you’ve wrecked the planet

As you may or may not be aware, life as we’ve been living it is probably over. Greenland and Antarctica are melting much faster than expected. CO2 is reaching levels at which, historically, there have been plants and trees at the South Pole. There is the threat of crop failures and food shortages in the years to come, more social instability and perhaps even collapse. Things could get very ugly. And still there is no meaningful articulation of a new worldview at a governmental level. We insist on economic growth, and hope for technologies that will allow us to maintain our dependency on profligate energy use while counting our carbon calories. Meanwhile demand for the low-cost air travel and red meat that developed countries have indulged for so long is spreading internationally.

But, hey, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. In this undependable world, which biped mammal blessed (or cursed) with a pre-frontal cortex wouldn’t seek security and advantage through high-carbon technology? Who doesn’t want light and heat at the flick of a switch; quick, safe, and efficient travel; an abundance of tasty and sometimes healthy food; a dizzying array of toys and gadgets to ease our existential anxiety? Of course we want these things but how does one power such a Promethean fantasy? Fortunately, we found all this highly combustible black stuff in the ground. All we had to do was dig and burn. It has been a hard dream to let go of but that’s all it was: a dream.

Perhaps homo sapiens will return home in the not-geologically-distant future: gathering around a fire on the savannah, using rudimentary tools, eating ridiculous amounts of fibre. And what will be said in the red light of that fire? What stories will they tell, what wisdom will they share under lonely stars? Fragmented myths about the age of peak energy, maybe. And perhaps there will be–still visible if they know where to look–an Ozymandian reminder of our impossible lives. Maybe they’ll be happier in small ways, more connected to themselves and the mystery of life. Maybe this is a journey we are all asked to undertake.