When I speak to new parents who are overwhelmed with their child's diagnosis of autism, I often share the Holland analogy. I first heard it when Alex was diagnosed and it's always struck me as particular apt.
Having a child with autism is like boarding a plane for Italy and landing in Holland.
It's glib, but when you think about it, it makes sense. The parenting books and magazines are all about neurotypical children. Using them to deal with your child with autism is about as effective as using a map of Rome to navigate Amsterdam. Both places have roads and buildings and places you want to get to, but that's really where the similarities end.
When you don't know your child has autism, it's baffling. The advice never quite seems to work as expected and yet, people keep telling you that either you've done the technique wrong or you haven't tried hard enough. We were told that we should be patient and Alex would begin eating solid food if we let him get hungry enough. Which is probably true of most neurotypical toddlers, but for a child with sensory issues, it doesn't matter how hungry they are. The food was genuinely intolerable and needed almost six years of daily therapy work to overcome the aversion.
So, here parents are, standing in Holland, trying to use their Italian phrasebooks and searching for the statues and art collections, getting more and more frustrated with each passing day. A sense of helplessness and hopelessness grows.
When they receive the diagnosis, that's when things start to change. They begin to be told what needs to be done for their child, in effect, getting the maps and guidebooks for Holland. All of a sudden, things start to work again. It's still difficult because parenting a child with autism is an extra level of challenge. But it's so much easier than it was before the diagnosis. Things begin to make sense again.
I know some families don't like the Holland analogy because they feel that it creates too large a divide between raising neurotypical children (which is still hard) and children with autism. Respectfully, I disagree. The world may not be entirely family-friendly, but it is set up to deal with neurotypical children. Kids who can handle changes in schedule without tantrums, who can communicate easily, who can learn social skills without expressly being taught, and who don't need the kind of everyday support that a child with autism does. Parents whose children have autism are effectively in a different country than everyone else.
I've known that I'm in Holland for over ten years now. I've got a fairly good grasp on how autism affects both of my boys and can usually come up with some kind of solution to their challenges. I still need a lot of help and I still end up exhausted and discouraged on more days than I like to realize. And I still look at my friends and colleagues who have neurotypical children and envy them for their Italian lifestyle. But it is much better than those horrible two and a half years where I was living in Holland and trying to make it work in Italian.