Care and Feeding

My Mother-in-Law Doesn’t Approve of How We’re Helping Our Autistic Child Learn to Communicate

Movies like Toy Story are working wonders, but she dismisses them as too much TV. How can we get her to shut up?

Collage of a boy on an iPad.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by patat/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is 4-and-a-half years old and autistic. He has only been speaking for the last year, and it has been absolutely amazing to see his progress from nonverbal to this sassy, opinionated little boy.

Part of him learning to talk came, oddly enough, through the initiation of more screen time. We find that the things he hyper-focuses on (like Disney franchises) really are where the engagement comes in. His current special interest is all things Toy Story, and we have watched the movies more times than I can count. My husband and I watch the movies with him and engage him with questions about what we are watching. It started as easy answers (“What color is Buzz?” “Green!”) moving to more complex questions that require a full sentence of an answer. It seems silly, but it has been working.

Sounds great, right? But here’s the issue: My mother-in-law has been harping on it a lot. Every time we share a video of kiddo talking (which we do a lot since we are just over the moon), she will make a snide comment about how it’s “about TV again.” It’s getting to the point of demoralizing and embarrassing us, since she seems to have no qualms about commenting on our social media that we share with friends/family. We tried doing a gentle “back off” in the form of saying things like “with autistic kids, it’s best to engage them with their special interests!” or “Yup! He loves Buzz Lightyear!” hoping she would get the hint. Her personality is such that if we address it directly, we will be dealing with a crying, whining adult and guilt trips from the rest of the family for “being mean” to her (been there, done that).

I vote she loses the right to see my son’s progress if she’s being rude about it. My husband wants to ignore it and pretend it’s not happening. He argues that she doesn’t see him often (completely by her choice, since we live only three blocks away), so to cut her off our social media would be mean. Quite frankly, I have other issues with my mother-in-law, so I know that is clouding my decision-making. What should I do?

—To Infinity and Beyond!

Dear TIaB,

I would suggest she watch Life, Animated, a movie about a young man named Owen Suskind who found a similar way to achieve communication with his family and friends. It does a marvelous job explaining why so many autistic people love animated movies: exaggerated facial expressions to aid in learning nonverbal modes of communication, archetypal heroes and sidekicks and classic narratives of triumph over adversity, characters who turn what others see as weaknesses into strengths, etc. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth watching. If your mother-in-law is more reading oriented, this is the piece that inspired the movie.

Then, tell her to fucking zip it if she keeps it up. You’re doing great. You don’t have time for this nonsense back-seat driving. You don’t have to cut her off your social media, but you can restrict your ability to see her comments on it. And you can end conversations if she starts nagging.

I think you are a great parent, and you’re meeting your son where he is. If we all did that, the world would be a better place.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner of two-and-a-half years and I have a consistent issue of him being unable to prioritize me when we’re in a situation that absolutely calls for it. When he’s unhappy, he becomes unable to make even himself a priority. I’ve asked him to start therapy or some form of it that he’s comfortable with. We’ve discussed many options, not just for him, but also us as a couple … but he never takes the next step to follow through.

I know he’s capable and if I push him (practically every step of the way), he will get there, but I don’t feel that’s totally fair to me. I don’t want to take on the role of caretaker/therapist in that way. I love him deeply and want to continue planning for a life together as we have been, but I don’t know how. We’re spending time apart due to the pandemic and needing to be with our families while sheltering in place.

I’m taking this time to allow myself some time to think and decide where we go from here, but I feel more confused than ever. I’m not ready to give up on our relationship yet, but I don’t know how to return and pick up where we left off either. We’ve started making large investments together and are planning to support one another financially through school. I also struggle because we’re so young and planning our lives and careers together. There’s so much I haven’t done yet, and I fear I’m missing out, commiting to a relationship that may not succeed no matter how much I may want it to. I feel we may have come into each other’s lives too early, but I couldn’t bear to lose him.

—Confused

Dear Confused,

The fact you have written to a parenting column about your partner is, I think, mildly significant (even if you just clicked the wrong box). You are parenting this person. There are lots of people we meet at “the wrong time,” but after two-and-a-half years, you’ve waited long enough for the time to become right.

The thing about (waves vaguely at news cycle) is that it’s turning out to be a real proving ground for relationships. Some relationships are going to be cemented by this experience into a lasting bond. Others are going to fall apart. Some of the latter might have survived without this, but them’s the breaks.

I think you should break up. I’m very sorry.

• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

Is it wrong to restrict my social butterfly, a senior in high school, from going out and seeing his friends right now?

—Social Butterfly, Flutter By

Dear Social Butterfly,

Absolutely not. If he wants to be a disease vector, he can wait until he moves out. We live in a society.

How Much Parenting Anxiety Is Too Much?

Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp host this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We welcomed our second child six weeks ago. Sometime about two months before he was born, our daughter, who is 3, began fighting bedtime. Since she was 8 months old, we had a lovely half-hour-long (one-hour on bath nights) bedtime routine that was calm and got the job done. She was always in bed on time (based on the hours of sleep we figured out she needed), and all were happy.

Now bedtime is almost a three-hour chore that leaves my husband and I frayed. She resists putting on pajamas, draws out the reading of books, and demands countless bedtime songs. She is particularly ornery and has resorted to screaming and crying when we do not comply with her wishes. After lights are out and she’s in bed (about an hour-and-a-half into the process), she comes to her bedroom door demanding more songs, more water, etc. for another hour and a half.

We’ve found ourselves negotiating and bribing far more than we’d like and have resorted to letting her cry it out at her bedroom door, which is gated for her safety, quite often. She often falls asleep after 10 p.m., which leaves her tired and primed for a bad day the next day. My husband and I are so worn down by the second hour of the nighttime dance that we can barely keep our cool and not start yelling.

Is there anything to do, or is this just a symptom of major changes in her life (being 3, new sibling, moving into a big girl bed)? Any tips? We’re desperate!

—Tired of the Nighttime Dance

Dear TotND,

This is probably just, as you say, a symptom of major changes in her life. You do not mention if she still takes a nap. If she does, this is one of the universal signs that she needs to drop the nap.

If she doesn’t, and this has been going on for months, I am going to officially ask you to call (call/telecommunicate, whatever) her pediatrician and see if they think a little dose of melatonin is worth trying. I know this is a Controversial Recommendation, but that’s why you’re going to talk to a medical professional.

You can’t keep living like this. You have a newborn. Your daughter cannot go on like this either. Of course she’s exhausted.

I’m so sorry, and congratulations on your baby.

— Nicole

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