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.

Insurgent Heart

Sati is not heavy, not harsh, not rigid. It is supple, light, invisible. It has not flavor of its own. It is uncontracted, unmanipulative attention that allows phenomena to arise and pass according to their own nature without the tethers of reactivity and control.

Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, Insurgent Heart

There’s a fascinating dharma book available on Kindle called Insurgent Heart: A Vipassana Manual for the Guerrilla Yogi. Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey is a student of Michele McDonald, who invented the RAIN acronym. Jesse teaches vipassana in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw.

The book is unique in that it reclaims the martial metaphors of the Buddhist canon with a surprisingly apt twist: he uses asymmetrical guerrilla warfare as an analogy for Buddhist meditation in lay life. It’s a fun and refreshing approach and a counterbalance to the many earnest and sometimes anodyne dharma books out there.

What really interests me about Jesse’s book is the emphasis on being with experience as it is. This means not manipulating energy and attention to produce jhanas etc. The emphasis is on mindfulness and building our capacity to witness any sensations as they arise and pass. As Jesse observes, there will come a day when we will no longer be able to control the conditions of our lives nor our mental state. Our only refuge then will be our capacity to be with experience.