What does it really mean to enable versus support your student?

Generally speaking, enabling refers to the practice of over-helping, as in rescuing your student from uncomfortable or challenging situations without considering if they are able to handle it themselves.

When you support your student, you provide space for them to learn from their mistakes and build the necessary coping skills to handle life’s twists and turns. It is your job as parents and caregivers to provide positive encouragement along the path to independence but not to pave the road for them before they get there.

As a parent/caregiver of an individual with autism or a learning difference, you may have wondered whether you were enabling your child or supporting them through a challenging situation. At what stage do we allow our child to make their own decisions and choices even when we know they may not be the ones we would recommend?

If you are sending your student to College Internship Program (CIP), or a similar post-secondary support program, you are already demonstrating support for your student’s path toward independence. If your student is not quite ready to be away from home, you have a wonderful opportunity to prepare them for their next steps. Here are some ways to ensure you are not enabling your student, but recognizing their potential and trusting their capability as an independent adult.


Your student is an adult. Quite possibly, your student may not be demonstrating age-appropriate behavior or decision making, but as parents/caregivers we have to allow space for growth to happen. It is tempting to want to step in and correct the issue for them. When your student asks for immediate assistance, ask yourself: is this a teachable moment?

  • Ask your student if they are experiencing an emergency (define what is an emergency beforehand).
  • Redirect your student to the appropriate person that could assist them (aside from you). If they are living away from home you can direct them to an emergency phone number stored in their phone that is also posted in their apartment/home.
  • Remind your student of a situation in which they have persevered before and ask what strategies have worked in the past. Give them the confidence that they could get through this and that you are there to support them along the way.

Shift Your Approach

To let go is not to enable; rather, it allows learning to come from natural consequences. Rather than finding your students solutions, try to be supportive and allow them to problem solve.

Struggling to find their answers and solve their problems only creates anxiety and stress for both you and your student. Provide a few choice solutions for him/her to choose from. Guide the process and allow your student to problem solve with you as opposed to providing the answers first.

  • Before providing suggestions, ask questions regarding their situation.
    • Why do you think that happened?
    • What can you do right now instead?
    • What are some coping strategies you have been practicing?
    • Who could help you with this problem?

Let Go of the Timeline

Being flexible and learning how to change your expectations and standards is not an easy task. While your student is learning this skill, it is important to be a role model.

  • Reframe the issue so that a challenge is seen as a learning opportunity.
    • Everyone learns differently and success is defined differently for each individual. Everyone gets to their destination eventually; model patience and acceptance of the incremental progress demonstrated.
    • Every step forward is still a step in the right direction.
    • To let go is to not compare the progress of your student with the progress of someone else’s student. Each student is on their own path toward self-discovery, acceptance, and success.
    • Create a mantra and recite it to your student when they call in distress. For example: “You can do this, I know you can.”

Get Support & Self-Care

The chronic stress that parents/caregivers of children with autism experience has been compared to the stress experienced by combat soldiers! This may not come as a surprise to the many parents feeling a level of stress that is not easily understood by family and well-meaning friends.

According to a recent survey of parents of children with autism, more than 80% reported sometimes being “stretched beyond their limits.” The three most stressful factors stated in the related article were: concern about long-term outcomes for their children, societal acceptance of the condition, and the limited social supports received by parents.

It’s understandable for parents/caregivers to “overdo” for their children. It prevents stress in the short-term but creates bigger problems in the long run.

It is for this reason that it is so important for parent/caregivers to take care of their own well-being in order to have the strength to be able to pause and ask the following questions:

  • How is my parenting approach helping my student move forward toward a more independent life?
  • Am I giving my student the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and build their coping skills?
  • Am I trusting others to assist my student in finding the support and resources they need to be successful?
  • Am I spending any time focusing on my own needs?

It is also OK to say no. You have your own responsibilities, and your student is learning how to manage theirs. You have invested so much of your time, energy and money to provide everything your student needs to be able to take that responsibility for themselves to the best of their ability. It is now time for you to focus on your needs and redefine your role as a parent of an adult.

  • Reconnect with friends.
  • Take that vacation you have been waiting to take.
  • Think back to your life before kids and restart an old hobby.
  • Find support through a parent coach, therapist or support group. Now that your student is an adult, your relationship needs to shift to reflect that and having a support system in place facilitates the process.

As parents/caregivers, we all share the common goal of being able to launch our young adults successfully into the world. It can be a very scary time but with the proper foundational support versus enabling patterns of behavior, we could ensure the most positive outcomes in the future.

A parent/caregiver's job is never truly over but the goal is for our children to be able to ask for the support they need when they actually need it, rather than expect that others will do for them. As a result, your young adult will feel safe to take risks and go out into the world to be the productive, happy son or daughter you know they can be. It takes time but with patience, an open heart and mind, everything is possible!