By Kris McElroy
If someone would have asked me to rate my anxiety and excitement on a scale of 1-10 when I found out I was going to be a dad in May of 2020, I would have said, “are you kidding me? I’m like a 25 on excitement and a 50 on anxiety”. Before then I never believed I could be a parent because I was autistic because of the messages I received, which played into my anxiety being a 50 mixed with good old new parent anxiety in general.
Now almost 2 years later I know this isn’t true. I also know being an autistic dad brings its unique challenges and rewards on the everyday rollercoaster of parenthood and for me, I am still searching for resources and support related specifically to being an autistic parent. In the meantime, my parenting journey doesn’t have a pause button, so we continue to figure it out along the way.
Whether it is found in moments of pure joy and pride or in a raw moment of crying because I am overloaded but my child is having a tantrum because she wants to be out of the car seat and there is still 10 minutes left to get home before I start singing the song “5 little ducks” (with extra quacks) on repeat until we pull into our parking spot.
Finding strategies as an autistic parent of an active rambunctious toddler for dealing with sensory overload in moments like that has provided its own continuous learning curve. Like all other aspects of parenting in general – sometimes it may look like we have everything together or like everything is a chaotic mess or something in between.
In the mix, I’ve discovered these 6 tips help me deal with sensory overload while helping me strive to be the best parent I can be for my child:
1. Take a “parent” sensory break during nap times.
For me, this isn’t a preference. Instead, it is necessary and vital to my self-care.
2. Find a pair of earplugs/headphones that work for you as a parent.
I use Loop earplugs and silicone earplugs because they allow me to decrease the sound decibels in the environment while still being able to hear my child and know what is going on around her and me. I also have multiple pairs so I can easily find them in her diaper bag, the car, her stroller, etc… I had to do this because I kept running into situations where I needed them but couldn’t find them.
3. Ask for help / Accept the help being offered that allows a sensory break.
I didn’t value this because I thought it reinforced the idea that I wasn’t a capable dad, but as I worked through this internalized stigma I saw it was needed and actually helped me get through the whole day, every day rather than melting down or dissociating at the end of the day.
4. Plan high sensory activities during the time of day that works best for you as a parent.
We have found our child is always ready and active, so it worked better for me as a primary caregiver during the week to plan high mess meals and high sensory activities during the times when my tolerance was at its peak and I wasn’t tired or cognitively overloaded. This helped the experiences be more enjoyable for both me and my daughter.
5. Prepare as best you can by making sure all basic needs are met and able to be easily accessed if needed.
I find myself prioritizing prep time – especially the diaper bag when leaving the house. I am still learning how to make sure my needs are also accessible such as food and drink, but it is a work in progress.
6. Expect the unexpected and build up flexibility.
This especially is true for me as a parent when something just isn’t going as planned. Whether it’s my sensory threshold is lower so we go to a less crowded playground or I choose a simple lunch or whether my daughter had a rough night sleep so everything is off. I continue to build up my cognitive flexibility and how to shift with the unexpected which makes for smoother transitions while helping me to be the best parent I can be.
7. Be kind and gentle with yourself.
You got this!
Kris McElroy is a freelance writer, artist, and advocate. He is passionate about social justice issues and exploring race, disabilities, gender identity & sexuality, mental health, identity, trauma, and intersectionality. Born and raised in Maryland, Kris is an autistic biracial black transgender man with multiple disabilities who enjoys spending time with his wife and family. He received his Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Maryland and a Master of Science in Multidisciplinary Human Services from Capella University.