Parenting a child on the autism spectrum is exhausting and challenging - but hugely rewarding

OPINION: When my son was three, if you showed him a flag he could tell you which country it came from.

He could barely pronounce names such as Mozambique, but he could name its flag. 

Once he mastered flags he moved onto countries, and could soon name every country in the world along with its capital city. 

When he was five if you showed him the outline of a country he could tell you which one it was. He could even list every country from smallest to biggest.  

He has had a fascination with the universe and knows more about our solar system than most adults. He once created a solar system out of foam balls. I told him there were only seven planets in it and there should be eight. 

It is not our solar system, he told me. It was the solar system of the star Trappist, some 40 light-years from Earth. He told me three of the planets orbiting the distant star were in the 'Goldilocks zone', which means they may have life on them.  

He has an incredible brain that not only absorbs knowledge, but seeks it out, processes it and understands it. 

My son is on the autism spectrum. 

I am not an expert on autism, but I do know it is a wide spectrum and there are children whose lives are affected more severely than my son's. This is based solely on my experience being his parent. 

We are fortunate my son can generally navigate daily life, which a lot of people on the spectrum can't. Even so it is a challenge for him. 

He is very sensitive to light and noise and can't cope very well in crowded, noisy situations such as the supermarket. A simple thing like a hand dryer in a bathroom or a truck going by can terrify him. 

School is hard for him; he finds it tough to concentrate in a classroom, and the prospect of keeping focus all day is exhausting for him - as is dealing with hundreds of other kids. 

He finds it tough to socialise in a group and prefers to play with just one other child. He is only seven, but sadly has already been teased for his fascination with topics most other kids don't care about. 

He struggles with social interactions and cannot pick up on subtle social clues like body language. Often - although not so much now we can recognise the signs - when the situation gets too much for him, he will melt down. 

Most parents of autistic children will understand this. To many people it looks like a temper tantrum, but it is actually when the autistic person's brain cannot cope with what is going on, and they literally melt down.

It can happen anywhere, but is often in public, somewhere noisy and crowded. They can be violent, almost like the child is having a fit. My son used to bang his head on the floor. 

For the parent, they are scary and confusing; your child is having an extreme reaction to something and needs comforting, yet will often push back if you try and hug them. 

To other people, it looks like bad behaviour - and here's the thing about being a parent to an autistic child: other people's reactions really piss you off. 

I am fed up with people telling me I should discipline my boy when he has a meltdown in the supermarket. Instead of standing there shaking your head why don't you ask if I am OK and if you can help.  

It is just ignorant to blame the behaviour of any child with a neurodiverse condition on bad parenting, but it happens all the time.  

Parenting a child on the autism spectrum can be exhausting, and simple things most children do easily, such as sleeping and eating, are a struggle. 

Autistic children are often on the go from the minute they are up until they fall asleep. 

There is very little support available for both children on the autism spectrum and their familes, and what is available is fragmented.  

I am a member of a number of autism groups, and there are overriding issues parents of children on the autism spectrum vocalise: a lack of support and funding, a lack of understanding about what autism is, and how parents of autistic children are often accused of being bad parents. 

Parenting my son is challenging and often exhausting, but it is hugely rewarding. I love his uniqueness. 

He is a fascinating child with some special talents, but I worry he is already being pushed into a world he does not quite fit in. 

I wish it were the other way around. 

Mark Longley is the managing editor of Newshub Digital.