On Autism and Self-Compassion

Kristin Neff  Ph. D.



My field of study is self-compassion, it’s what I do all my research on, and I’m writing a book. One of the things that this practice has given me is that I’m really okay with being my honest, authentic self.

It’s not that I like people judging me. It was kind of hurtful, some people really went after us because of the [Horse Boy] movie, they said that we made it all up, that we’re in it for the money, and people who didn’t know me were making all these assumptions about my character. It was really strange; I never thought I’d be in that position.

But in terms of the stuff that is true about me, I’m really okay with it. I’m also okay with admitting my flaws and my shortcomings, and that it’s okay to be imperfect. In my book [on self-compassion], I actually go into some quite personal details about my life, because I feel that if you’re going to tell a story honestly, and if you’re going to affect people, and if you then make it a picture-perfect, Ozzie and Harriet-type thing, it’s not real life.

Self-compassion made a huge difference in raising Rowan [my son with autism]. Both Rupert and I are really committed to self-compassion. We really made sure we had compassion for how difficult it was to be Rowan’s parents. We gave each other breaks, nights off.

I think a lot of autism parents are so in problem-solving mode, and they’re so focused on helping their kid — it’s hard to admit the grief, because you feel, “I love my kid so much — how can I admit how difficult, and how painful, and how depressing it is sometimes?” And I think that you have to acknowledge those painful feelings, and that actually allows you to love your child even more. I don’t think autism parents do that nearly enough — or any parents, for that matter. But especially the autism parents. You have to acknowledge the grief.

When Rowan was first diagnosed, I went to a local Autism Society of America meeting, and everyone was kind of happy, and talking about this and that. I said, “Look, I am struggling with an intense amount of grief right now” and then they all helped and supported me.

So it can be really hard, like this morning, when Rowan had a bad day, and for an hour he was in such distress, and there was nothing we could do. I made him a little replacement toy wheel [for his train] and I was so clever and I was so proud of myself — and it would not do. It’s really really frustrating and hard. Sometimes. And then sometimes it’s beautiful and glorious, and he’s the best kid in the entire world — and he is! But it’s all of it. It’s the whole — spectrum.

It’s not the positive instead of the negative, it’s both. As Kahlil Gibran says, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” And I think there is really some aspect to that with autism. The amount of sorrow and frustration and grief is really intense, but it matures you. And then you have the joy and you have the good things, and that’s more intense. I think it’s a growth-learning-opening experience, every bit as much — or more, actually — for the parents than the kids. And that’s beautiful, and it’s difficult. It’s certainly an interesting path to go down, isn’t it?

I think autism breaks open your heart. The big lesson in life is that you can’t control things, and you have to be open to what life brings you. You can bang your head against the wall of reality as much as you want and it won’t help. Autism forces you to accept what you don’t want. That is the whole lesson with Buddhism and a lot of spiritual traditions, it’s all about surrendering to this greater unfolding and not trying to control things. Autism parents are forced to learn that lesson, and that’s a really good lesson to learn.

Excerpted from a BlogHer.com interview.