Summertime Glimmers: A Reflection on PDA Parenting

By Sunita Theiss

We’ve taken several trips to the beach since becoming parents. 

I never expected to be one of those families. I don’t love the way sand feels on my skin. I can’t swim. I spent most of my life believing that being in the sun would make my appearance less desirable to those who might otherwise want me. 

But every summer as I sit on the beach, I consider that loving my children is like entering the ocean—an unpredictable encounter with an often-misunderstood body. I watch them play in the waves as I feel little swells of emotion that only make sense for a fleeting moment. I write poems about it. And the swimming! I am optimistic I could avoid drowning for a short time and hopefully be saved by a more ocean-adept individual, but that’s about it. I never go out too far—I prefer to keep my waist above water, but there’s always a small fear that something wild will rip me away from safety. 

I’m not sure I was equipped to parent before becoming one, despite the years of babysitting, volunteering, and having close friends with little ones. I’m honestly not sure I have truly learned how to “swim” when it comes to parenting, despite the fact that we’ve been at it for a few years. And choosing a life that prioritizes supporting our children instead of conforming to norms and expectations has forced me to wade out much further than I’d ever imagined.

I’ve immersed myself in research. I’m learning about the medical model in our country, what constitutes a disability, the immense amount of stigma associated with the way my family is wired, but I’ve also been encouraged by the emerging supports and accommodations that seem to be revolutionizing well-being for families like ours—for children like mine.

My children are young, still. In the most intense moments of our life, I have resolved to be the weathered rocks that their dysregulation beats against. At the same time, we’re working together to establish the tools and skills we all need to navigate this world.

I worry that I won’t be able to support them—that one day I won’t be equipped. Will it feel like pivoting to blindly build a lighthouse so that I might offer a new kind of support—a beacon, an orienting point, in the torrential outpouring of fear and pain? I’ve never built anything like this before, but I know we love lighthouses.

And as I think about oceanside structures, I keep thinking about the places we visit, how one beach trip required a last minute change because a hurricane took out a house we’d considering renting. I find it peculiar that tiny seaside towns are so often a place of rest and respite, yet their residents (and visitors) willingly subject themselves to the unpredictability of nature’s fiercest expressions. Irrational bravery in pursuit of whale songs and the healing power of ocean air.

But isn’t it irrationally brave to be a parent? To be a child is, too. And to navigate a disability on either side of this? Even more so.

And if we think of our family as one of these tiny towns—that we’ve built our life in a place that will offer rest, peace, respite for us and our loved ones, then we’ll keep doing our best to fortify it with an abundance of healing, grace, and all the safety and regulation we can provide. 

But ocean waters never still themselves, do they? They just take their chaos to a different place. 

The water picks up something whole in one place and deposits it somewhere else—salty, broken, transformed, covered in something new.

We have hoped aloud that one day we’ll find a message in a bottle—a letter about love or grief or something remarkable that only the writer knew had happened, until we’re lucky enough to read it for ourselves. And sometimes amidst the broken sandcastles, seaweed, and the occasional jellyfish, we find polished sea glass and intact shells. 

I hope we’ll keep finding little glimmers when we least expect it.


Sunita Theiss is an autistic + ADHD mom of neurodivergent kids. Multiple members of her family identify with PDA, and she completed the PDA North America Level 1 program in 2023. A child of Indian immigrants, Sunita was born and raised in Georgia. She is a poet and writer, and has had an extensive career in marketing and communications. She is currently in a season of downshift in her career to be more hands-on with her family and homeschool her children. Connect with her on InstagramSubstack, or in the PDA Georgia Facebook group.