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“Many people will be surprised to learn that autistic mothers exist at all. But here we are: loving, affectionate, deeply engaged and often working and/or serving our communities alongside our parenting responsibilities. It is probably too ordinary to merit a dramatic presentation, and in fact too similar to the experiences of neurotypical mothers to merit any attention at all. That is not to deny that autistic mothers face multiple challenges in their everyday lives, but those stories are theirs to tell. Autism is a very broad spectrum indeed (or even a constellation), representing millions of unique experiences. The blanket assumption that we struggle to love is a lazy, outdated cliché.”
‘Autism mom’ is a term often used by, and to describe, non-autistic mothers of autistic children. It’s a sort of identity, signifying her interest in and connection to autism. ‘Autism moms’ wear jigsaw piece embellished slogans, share memes about their ‘special children’, light it up blue and support Autism Speaks. They want to solve the puzzle of autism and unlock their children from their autistic prisons.
‘Autism moms’ are often passionate about getting the best treatments for their autistic children and keen to measure and compare progress. They love their autistic children and want to cure them of their autism. They spend their savings and pension pots on expensive treatments, some fairly benign, others fairly harmful.
‘Autism moms’ talk of their despair, their fear and the horrors of their daily lives. They understand when fellow ‘autism moms’ murder their own autistic children, because they understand the despair and the the nightmare of autism parenting. They raise funds for research and rejoice at scientific discoveries which suggest a cause for autism, hopeful that cause might lead to cure and prevention.
‘Autism moms’ are often criticised by adult autistic activists for not properly understanding autism. When it is suggested that the path they tread is misguided or dangerous, ‘autism mom’ claims that her child is more severe or more different to the autistic adult, that she knows her child best and has their child’s best interests at heart.
‘Autism moms’ are also criticised for wanting to cure autism, for striving to take away an essential part of their children’s personhood. Autistic activists argue that autism is a neurological variant, not a disease or affliction, and that acceptance and accommodations are what’s needed, not treatments and cures. ‘Autism moms’ are derided for discussing the day to day challenges of parenting their autistic children and told to listen to and be guided by autistic adults.
My introduction to autism began as a (seemingly) non-autistic parent to an autistic child. I was never a full-on ‘autism mom’ as described by the gratuitous stereotype above, but I can relate to the sentiment. I shared the worst and the best of my son’s behaviour and development on social media (albeit anonymously). I rejoiced when he behaved more like, and showed signs of development in line with, his non-autistic peers. I read and read and read to find ways to help him develop his emotional and social skills. I tried to help him ‘fit in’ with his non-autistic peers and shuddered with embarrassment when he showed his autism in public.
I looked for the magic bullet to help him overcome the problems of his autism and be more like his typically developing peers. I wanted his life to be easier and happier.
Parents (almost always) want the best for their children, we certainly don’t want our children to struggle. From the moment they’re born our children are measured, weighed, charted and checked, their progress against developmental norms compared and recorded. As parents we watch for signs of the next steps, celebrating when they make good progress or are ahead of the curve, worrying when we see delays. We see our children among their peers and cannot help but compare. Our children will grow up into a world made for norms. We want to smooth the path. We worry more. We do more. The search for the elusive key becomes all consuming.
I understand why ‘autism moms’ wear themselves out trying to ‘fix’ their autistic children. I understand why they want to identify the causes of autism and prevent more hardships and heartbreak. Parenting an autistic child in a world built upon and for norms is not easy. Lack of understanding, poor educational options, constant battles for provision and support, balancing needs and resources within the family, it is hard and it often feels relentless.
As I meander through this new world, with my newfound autistic identity, I struggle at times to consolidate the different perspectives. On the one hand, I am a parent to a child who has had way more struggles than a child should, and I want to do everything in my power to ameliorate those struggles, whilst on the other hand I want to celebrate his (and my) differences, and glory in the wonder of our neurodivergence.
I listen when autistic adults offer advice to parents of autistic children. I read carefully when autistic adults write articles criticising ‘autism moms’ and their choices. I constantly compare what’s being discussed to my own parenting, wondering if I measure up, am I doing my son a disservice, am I good enough? After a lifetime of never fitting in, I can’t help but wonder where I fit. I still feel as if I have a foot in the warm shallow end of both ‘sides’.
The reality is that it wasn’t working out I’m autistic that influenced my parenting. It was much more that as I became more confident as a parent I became more able to do what my son needed. I no longer felt like I had to perform some idealised version of the ‘good mother’.
I started writing this post nearly 2 years ago and had planned it (rather grandiosely perhaps) as a way to try and bridge the gap between what sometimes feels like the warring factions of ‘autism moms’ and autistic activists. I really struggle when I read accounts by autistic adults who are not parents themselves (for example Temple Grandin’s ‘The Loving Push’ book) giving parenting advice to parents of autistic children. I’m not sure non-parents can ever really understand being a parent any more than non-autistics can ever really understand being autistic.
I also struggle when non-autistic parents of autistic children are told they just need to understand and listen to their child better, as if that’s the magic answer. My autism does not give me some special power to intuitively know how to parent and support other people’s autistic children. I didn’t have all the skills I needed to parent my own child so how can I know what’s best for another child, who is not part of my family?
I know I am not alone as a parent trying to balance preparing my child for a life in a neurotypical-centric world whilst trying to preserve his right to be his own autonomous autistic self. It can be a tricky balance, and I often worry I’m missing something important. I do not agree with many ‘autism moms’ who see ‘normal’ and non-autistic as the ideal to aim and fight for. I do not see compliance with neurotypical expectations as desirable, in fact I see it as antithetical to self-advocacy.
If I can send one message to ‘autism mom’ it’s to encourage and prioritise your child’s autonomy over and above everything else, for this is what will help keep them safe in the future.
For more on autonomy, please read Jamie Knight’s article here:
Relationships between autistic and non-autistic people can be tricky, the different ways we express ourselves and our different needs can, at times, make it harder to support each other. Many of us autistics find it hard to verbally explain what we really need, especially when we are most distressed. Here, Lucy* writes a letter to her husband, the day after she’s had a meltdown, explaining how he can help her next time.
I wanted to talk to you about yesterday, but I don’t want to go getting all upset again so I thought I’d write it down. I write so much better than I can talk.
I have been so much better lately, not being so anxious, and I don’t want one silly incident to spoil all the progress and start me getting all obsessive and anxious again.
But my baseline anxiety is already higher than normal with going back to work and moving house, which means it is going to take less to tip me over into panic. And there’s not an awful lot I can do about that.
Yesterday, I admit it, it turns out I did overreact. But telling me I’m overreacting while I’m that upset isn’t going to help me calm me down. All that happens is I start to argue with you. I get physical symptoms from a panic attack, mainly because it reminds me of the times when things haven’t been ok, and then my brain starts to look for reasons why I’m panicking. The physical symptoms happen first, I’m not thinking myself ‘into it’.
As for preventing it from happening in the future, I will try phoning you. I don’t want to talk to whoever’s kickstarted the anxiety, because I’ve inadvertently upset people too many times by doing that. And it’s ok you saying ‘it won’t upset them’ but I thought that so many times in the past and it did, and then I’m the bad guy.
Realistically, I have Asperger’s. One of the symptoms is impaired communication. It’s not fair to expect me to take the whole responsibility for ensuring that we don’t get crossed wires, or that I don’t upset people without meaning to.
So I’d like you to do a couple of things for me.
Firstly, when these things happen, I’d like you to do the communicating for me. You have the social awareness, the filter, and the energy to put into not upsetting or offending other people. I don’t.
Secondly, I want you to try agreeing with me. Out loud. Instead of saying or implying that I’m over reacting. If you’re not disagreeing, I can’t argue with you and get even more worked up. Besides, there’s been times when you have been ‘on my side’ but keeping quiet for whatever reason and I interpret that as you disagreeing or being mad at me or something. If I’m in the wrong, there’s ways and means of talking to me about it and being stubborn when I’m upset isn’t the time. Let me calm down and then discuss it. If you can’t agree with what I’m saying because you’re sure I’m in the wrong, you could try saying things like ‘I can see you’re really upset/anxious’
Thirdly, the more I try and hold things in and not get upset, the harder it is until I blow. It’s like a coke bottle- every time something makes me anxious it’s like shaking it up. Eventually when you take that lid off there’s going to be an explosion. I need help to let it out a bit at a time. But if there is an explosion, shouting at the coke not to spill isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference. Once it’s started, it can’t be stopped. You just need to avoid getting covered, wait for the explosion to stop, then get mopping up. Give me a hug, I need that input sometimes to help me calm down. And encourage me to cry and let it out- if I don’t it’s storing up pressure for the next time.
I know that’s asking a lot of you, and it seems like I’m trying to avoid taking any responsibility for my own behaviour, but that’s not the case. Just that when I’m that upset, I’m not thinking clearly (if at all). I’m running on instinct. The priority has to be for me to calm down before I can think about what’s happened and how we can avoid it in future.
And at least I didn’t break anything last night. Small steps!
In this guest post, Katharine Manning writes about diagnosis, disclosure and managing the demands of everyday life, including her return to work.
It’s over 18 months now since I obtained my diagnosis. That has given me some peace – at last – and a basis for making informed choices about my life including how to rearrange it going forward. After spending several months free of work I finally seemed to get my autistic existence into some kind of balance, after quite a few years of feeling out of kilter but not understanding why. The question was though, would it withstand starting work again?
During my time off I’d found ways to head off or quell the autistic ‘overdrive’ that many others experience. But life was gentle, demands were few and time was plentiful. I got properly fit again by taking up running, one of the last things I thought I’d ever want to do but it helped lift me out of a quite unexpected but severe depression. I watched a lot of TV snooker: not everyone’s cup of tea but I find it good for my soul. It also reminds me of quiet, secure, companionable times spent in the company of my now-late grandparents. My marriage is in a better place, no-one in the family had any major health worries after a run of bad fortune and the ‘youths’ (too old now to be described as children) seem happy in their lives. I’d made quite a long sequence of disclosures about my diagnosis; in fact I got quite a good script going which overcame the difficulties of starting my explanation from scratch each time. Most of these went OK and even though a couple didn’t, I mostly managed not to let those bother me. The overall message and developing my altered identity were heading in the right direction.
Sometimes I find I’ve run out of steam for further disclosures, or just don’t make them. With two long-established friends in particular there was an opportunity but I didn’t take it. There was also a newer friendship where I just didn’t want to. It’s good sometimes just to try and ‘pass’ and let people make of me what they will. In fact I’ve recently made my first couple of new friends in many years so maybe have somehow relaxed into myself. One is (probably) autistic herself and there is a strange joy in finding someone from your own tribe. Oddly enough what has also helped is unlearning some of my self-sufficiency, by engaging more with other people through asking them for and offering help and things.
I had hoped that an extended spell free from work would bring about a fairly thorough ‘restoration’. To a limited extent it did but by no means amounting to ‘recovery’. It brought home to me that my functional deficits cut across all domains of my life. Being at home can be as challenging as being at work, just in different ways. About that time I read a post from the Autism Women’s Network about autistic burnout, which seemed to describe my situation perfectly. I felt it also explained why my AS had become more pronounced during the course of my life, which was puzzling me.
So, what conclusion to draw about what to do about work in future? I decided that the answer is to persist … but make it fit more manageably within my life overall. The idea of ‘managing spoons’ is very relevant to this, deciding how best to allocate my limited energy and personal resources. So I made a full and honest disclosure of what my AS means in a work context and entered into a problem-solving dialogue with my prospective line manager about the job I’d applied for and been offered (he received it well). I’ve halved my previous work hours and though the office is quite a long journey from home I’ve decided to try something new, staying away overnight which gives me quiet time and space to regroup mostly free of family pressures.
On days when I cope well, especially in the work sphere, I do still question whether I ‘merit’ this diagnosis. But then come days when I definitely don’t cope well and I’m reminded of – and eternally grateful for – the value of my diagnosis in understanding and managing my life. I recognise also that my ability to cope at work is a hard-earned consequence of doing just that: managing my life as well as others’ expectations.
I’m still not sure to what extent it might be possible for me to ‘recover’ my mental health which has become characterised by chronic anxiety mixed with some recurring depression. I find myself feeling unreasonably agitated when train carriages aren’t as quiet as libraries: not because I think other people shouldn’t talk but because my brain can’t hear conversations without processing them. ‘Brain fog’ or cognitive clouding is becoming a major issue and my ability to cope with that may ultimately determine whether it is realistic for me to continue in work longer term. Decisions about everyday life are also finely balanced: for instance, managing social anxiety by avoiding contact with people risks getting out of practice and further losing confidence. How much worse might AS get for me, particularly as I age? Might anxiety, irritability and isolation win the day or will a sense of humour, patience and self-forgiveness carry me over the further rough ground ahead?
What’s certain is the value of my support team. As well as family and friends, I’ve been lucky enough to have a very helpful GP who is always willing to listen, understand and research the issues I bring her. I’ve also felt well served by my workplace occupational health department and union representative. I’m fortunate that both my local NHS mental health services trust and autism service provider are progressive and in particular through the latter I found an extremely good-hearted specialist therapist who offers support to people with AS on both an individual and group basis. Finally, one of our local universities is doing some highly relevant research on managing anxiety symptoms in people with autism. By contributing to that I’ve been able to further scientific understanding as well as strengthening my own knowledge of the condition.
There is near universal agreement among autism academics that inadequate parenting does not cause autism, yet the legacy of psychoanalytic, parent-blaming theories of autism remains. The enormous popularity of theories like Kanner’s ‘refrigerator mothers’ and Bettelheim’s frankly bizarre Freudian analyses of motherhood, contributed to this longevity. Even now, with all we know, so often when faced with autistic behaviours, GPs, clinicians, teachers, friends and family seem to find reasons for visible behaviours that place the blame firmly on the parents.
The irony of all this parent-blaming is that there’s no consistency. From my own experience and having spent years interacting with 100s of parents online and in ‘real-life’, it’s clear that, for some people, all that matters is finding the ‘thing’ that the parents are doing ‘wrong’, even when the child is already diagnosed autistic.
My son is an only child so that has been suggested as a reason; but interestingly, my friend whose autistic son is one of 5 has been told it’s because he’s one of many.
I have heard mums told it is because they work, implying the child’s needs are neglected; and also because they don’t work and spend too much time with their child, implying indulgence.
Some are told they are too strict; and others too lax.
Perhaps it’s because both parents work; or perhaps it’s because neither parent works.
It could be that the parents expectations are too high; or too low, who knows?
Maybe it’s because the child doesn’t attend any extra-curricular activities; or maybe they spend too much time doing an activity they love.
It might even be because they never went to nursery; or was it because they were in childcare from an early age?
It’s probably because they’re the youngest, or the oldest, or in the middle.
For every single reason for blame given to a parent, I can bet that another parent has been given the opposite reason for blame.
None of these things cause autism.
But these messages do affect how people view autistic people, both children and adults. These messages suggest that the autism isn’t inherent, that it’s not an integral part of our being, instead suggesting that it’s damage inflicted upon us.