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Helicopter Parenting and Autism

Marina Sarris
Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute
May 19, 2014

No one likes to be called a helicopter parent, that species of hovering mom or dad who is overly involved in their children's lives. You know, the parent who's infamous for fighting his kid's battles, putting teachers on speed dial, and micromanaging play dates. Helicopter parents might find themselves with children who are unable or unwilling to manage their own lives as adults. Or so parents are warned.

But what happens when you have a child with autism, a child who does need more help? You've learned how to manage behavior, use assistive technology, and advocate for your child in special education meetings. You can look around a room and tell if the fluorescent lights or noise level will cause him sensory overload – and you try to fix that.

Are you supposed to just step back when your child becomes a teenager? Is it really so bad to be a helicopter parent if your child truly needs extra help?


The experts interviewed for IAN's "Transition to Adulthood" series encouraged parents and teachers to have children learn and practice the skills they need for adulthood. Even if it means watching them founder at times.

A child with autism may need much more practice to learn certain skills, such as getting himself ready in the morning or asking for help. But he won't get that practice if a parent – or a school aide – always swoops in and does everything for him.

Difficulties with daily living skills can interfere with someone's chances of becoming independent as an adult, some researchers say. Daily living skills include getting up on time in the morning, taking care of personal hygiene, housekeeping, shopping, and preparing a meal – some of the things parents may instinctively do for their children.

Dr. Peter Gerhardt, a behavior expert who works with people with autism, urges parents and teachers to provide lots of training and practice in the skills of daily living, regardless of where a child falls on the spectrum.

Tom Hays Ph.D., educational director of a high school for students with special needs, has seen what happens when parents try to inoculate their children from discomfort or failure, no matter how small.

"We will have students who can't do anything on their own although they have IQs in the 120s," said Dr. Hays of Franklin Academy, a day and boarding school for students with autism spectrum disorder and nonverbal learning disability in East Haddam, Connecticut.

The teens have a "learned helplessness," he said. Their parents may have battled to get services for them and to ensure they could succeed despite their challenges. After all that, it may be hard for those parents to back off and watch their kids possibly fail at something. But backing off will have its reward, in the long run, by creating more independent adults, Dr. Hays said.

"If there's one thing I could communicate to parents, it's that you want to make your child as independent as possible, and what that means is that your child is going to experience some discomfort. I cannot say that enough. And I understand that it's not easy to do, but in the long run, you will be glad you did it," he said.

How can parents walk the tightrope between providing enough support to keep their child with autism safe – but not so much that they stifle independence? It's a tough question.

Zosia Zaks, a certified rehabilitation counselor who has Asperger's Syndrome, works with teens and adults with autism. He has worked with families concerned about the safety of a son or daughter. Parents may not allow their son to go shopping, for example, because they worry about him having a meltdown at a store and attracting police attention, he said. "It can be terrifying for parents," Mr. Zaks said.

In that situation, he would urge parents to take their son shopping late at night when the store is empty or take him to a small market where he's known, he said. These experiences could gradually build upon each other to improve his skills.

Parents also may worry about an adult daughter with ASD who gives out her phone number to men randomly, he said. The parents, fearing for their daughter's safety, may not want her to attend social groups. The solution, however, is to provide specialized teaching, he said. "My approach is, 'Let's teach her what is an appropriate way to meet someone'" and when to supply a phone number, he said.

"Negotiating adulthood can be tricky for the whole family," he said.