My husband yells at our autistic daughter (and me). What should I do?

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK 

Question: My daughter is 7 and on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. My husband often has a short fuse with her (and me), and will yell at her - I'd say at least once a day.

I don't just mean a slightly raised voice or a case where she's about to touch a hot stove, but yelling with anger in his voice, such as, "Just go to sleep!" when she's having sleeping issues, or, "Fine, don't eat the eggs!" if she's being picky.

I suffer from anxiety and am sensitive to people yelling (it never happened in my household growing up), so when he yells, I get anxious and protective of our daughter, which tends to upset him more (for instance, he might tell me to "shut up").

We saw a marriage counsellor in the past who basically said it's normal to yell at your kids (and wife), and that he's screamed at his before.

Meanwhile the individual therapist I'm seeing says that it's never OK to yell at your kids - that it may happen, but it's not OK. I've tried talking to my husband about it, but he seems to think it's no big deal or will deny actually raising his voice.

Any suggestions on how to deal with this? He seems reluctant to see a different marriage counsellor.

Answer: This is a parenting column, so I am going to begin with the child and her needs. Autism Speaks defines autism spectrum disorder as "a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication." There are different types of autism, and medical issues such as GI problems, seizures and sleep difficulties can also affect people with autism.

High-functioning autism, which is not a formal diagnosis, generally refers to a child who may be able to get along in school and perform academically, but finds reading others' cues and socially engaging difficult. The child may also struggle to communicate her emotions but, with support and therapy in speech and movement, can greatly improve her ability to communicate.

The reason I wanted to give the most rudimentary definition of your daughter's condition (knowing little about her) is that I want to highlight how important communication is with these differently wired children. Because your daughter, in some capacity, cannot fully express herself - for example, that she may not like eggs - it is even more important for the parent to slow down and use patience and specialised communication tools to help the child strengthen these skills.

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Further, studies implore us to not confuse lack of communication or lack of social cues for lack of feeling. Children with high-functioning autism want to belong to the group; they just need therapy and support to form those habits.

Why is this important to know? Because your daughter is absolutely feeling the effects of your borderline verbally abusive husband. And although being yelled at every day breaks down self-esteem and increases panic in every child, it is especially painful for children with autism. Not only are they receiving the abuse, they also may lack a way to fight back or express big feelings.

And yes, I am using the word abuse. The fact that a therapist told your husband that his regular anger and yelling are "normal" is flat-out wrong. The feelings of frustration, anger and impatience that come with raising a child with autism are absolutely real, and they can take a toll on every aspect of your life.

The emotional, physical, financial, social and psychological impacts can be daunting, but that in no way justifies daily yelling at family members. There are online, in-person and therapeutic support options in every state for parents, and what is even more galling is that you have spent good money and time on therapy. Bad therapy, at that.

So, here we are, in a cycle of him yelling, you defending and him yelling more. I am glad you are with an individual therapist now, because you have some decisions to make. If your husband agrees to go to marriage therapy, run, don't walk, to the next counsellor. If your husband can admit he has an anger problem and can work on it, splendid. You continue to work on your anxiety, he works on his anger, and you both get support for raising your daughter.

But if your husband doesn't admit or lies about this anger, if he has no interest in changing, or if he blames you for his anger (or worse, blames your daughter), then you must decide how long you want to expose yourself to a man who is emotionally and psychologically toxic.

Your responsibility to yourself and your child is to live a safe and healthy life - not perfect, not devoid of frustration and impatience, but one of personal responsibility and kindness. If your partner cannot, I strongly recommend that you safely and slowly consider an exit plan. Talk to your therapist about what this would look like and how you could proceed.

Whatever you do, make a decision and move forward - for yourself, your daughter and your husband. Life is precious and short; your daughter needs you to find courage. Good luck.

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