From ‘autism mom’ to autistic mother

image shows a wooden bridge across a stream in a woodland setting, with ‘from ‘autism mom’ to autistic mother’ in white text

‘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.

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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.

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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’.

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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?

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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:

Spoons and other metaphors: how I use my social care budget

Could do better

A message to professionals working with autistic mothers of autistic children

This is the second part of my writing up of a talk I gave at an NAS conference. It is in some way the most important part of these three linked blog posts. This was and is my platform to tell professionals, both those working with us and those working with our children, what we need, what we struggle with and where you are getting it wrong and could do better. This is not an exhaustive piece, there is much more to be said, but it is a place to start and perhaps a way to encourage dialogue.

This post is primarily written for professionals working with autistic children, though much of the advice applies to adult services too. My focus is autistic mothers, though much will also apply to autistic fathers, and I am adopting a female default.

Remember, as was highlighted in my last post, there is a reasonable chance that most of the autistic mothers you encounter will not be diagnosed, and may indeed be oblivious to their own social and communication difficulties. By making your systems and processes more adapted to the needs of autistic mothers, you will be supporting not only undiagnosed mothers (and fathers) but other adults with additional needs.

As a parent of an autistic child there is no choice but to submit to a whole range of professional involvement. Even without our own autism it is hard. There is a lot of learning, planning and organisation required on a daily basis. We enter a world of acronyms: SEN, SENCO, ASD, SPD, JHS, IEP, EHCP, OT, PT, SALT. We open our lives and our families to scrutiny. We are judged.

And here lies the problem, our interactions with professionals are often judged. We know that how we present ourselves has the potential to change how you assess and what recommendations you make. We know you often think it’s us causing the problems. But are you judging us against the right model? Are you failing to spot that what appears problematic might not be at all? Could you take a moment to consider whether that mother (and, lets be honest, it is nearly always mothers you encounter) might be autistic?

Communication and asking for help

It should not be surprising that autistic mothers struggle to communicate. Autism is fundamentally a social and communication disorder. It is, however, surprising how little thought seems to go into making services and provision supportive of autistic mothers. It is not enough to make a provision or service autism-friendly if the autistic people in most need are unable to access it because of poorly designed systems which are anything but autism-friendly.

Having spent a lifetime maintaining a mask of proficiency, asking for help is tricky. We have to consider who to ask, how to ask, when and where? We fret over being laughed at or dismissed, concerned that expressing a need for help might signify our failure or incompetence. We struggle to find the words. Even when asked directly we may say ‘It’s ok, I’m fine’, when really we want to say ‘It’s not fine, I’m really struggling, but I can’t find the words and I need to get out of here’. Many professionals seem to leave the asking if there’s anything else they can help with until the end of a session. By this time we have usually had enough of the too small or too big room, the bright lights buzzing, the irritating noises beyond the door, the talking. All we are thinking is ‘Get me out of here’.

Phones, phones, phones

Using the phone appears to be a challenge for many autistic people. All of the non-verbal cues which (we have tried to learn) aid communication are stripped away. It’s just a voice. As we use phones less and less in our social lives I think it becomes even harder to communicate in this way. Every time I have discussed phones with other autistic women, we all describe high levels of anxiety around making and receiving phone calls. Screening calls seems to be common, we may silence our phones, use caller display and rely on our answer-phones. If we are expecting an important call, we will wait on tenterhooks, unable to do anything else until that phone call is complete.

Making phone calls is equally problematic. We plan what we need to say and adopt our ‘making a phone call’ persona, reminding ourselves of the conventions of making a phone call. We worry that the call will not be answered by the person we want, and have planned, to speak to. We dread having to explain the purpose of our call to a receptionist or some random person answering the phone. And what if it is an answer-phone? Before we make that call we prepare and rehearse numerous scripts for every conceivable possibility. Unfortunately, when an actual human answers, we are likely to forget the scripts and get in a muddle which sets the tone for the call…

Email is an easy solution

Considering that autism professionals must know how we struggle with verbal communications, it is troubling how few of you willingly offer alternatives. My life, and my ability to advocate for my son, has been immeasurably improved through the use of email. If you do one thing to improve your service, please provide your email address and show willing to communicate in this format. I can think of no reason to withhold email addresses, and am not sure what’s stopping you.

‘Call if you have a problem’

How many times have I heard this. It seems so simple. A professional who wants to help if there is a problem. But it isn’t that simple at all. As well as the general phone problems outlined above, how do we know what sort of problem to call with? Is this problem too minor or beyond the reach of your remit? If I make contact will you still know who we are? How long does this loose ‘call if…’ statement apply. I haven’t seen my son’s diagnosing paediatrician since 2010, she said to call if I had a problem, can I still call her? Probably best not! Explicit, clear, formal guidance for ‘what do do if…’ can be far more helpful in reality than kindly words.

The ‘Basil Fawlty’ effect

The more terrified of a situation I am, the more calm and confident I can look. The more arrogant. The more like a twat.

Lloyd-Williams, R. (2016). Burning Paper Faces. Unpublished.

A final word on communication problems. If you notice us getting more intense and agitated as we struggle to communicate, reminiscent of Basil Fawlty’s hopeless and often extremely uncomfortable interactions with his guests and staff, please spare a thought for our feelings. Be kind, give us space, perhaps postpone to enable us to find a more effective way to communicate.

Executive functioning

Problems with processing, planning and organisation are often overlooked when discussing autism, but seem common among the women I engage with online. In my last post I discussed how I juggled home, work, family and studying, but within and beyond each of those spheres there are a multitude of factors to manage. And because we have to work that much harder at the basics of life, and use a large part of our intellectual ability to do what comes easily and instinctively to neurotypical people, we sometimes find we have little left in reserve for day to day administration. This can be a problem.

One of my biggest challenges is responding to requests on time. I am an inveterate postponer. I rarely miss appointments as they are recorded on the calendar (and my partner reminds me). My biggest problem is ‘the letter asking me to phone’. As discussed above, phones are my/our nemesis. The best way to discharge me or my son from a service is to ask me to phone you to prevent said discharge. ‘The letter asking me to phone’ appears to be a way to target those in need of most help, and, I expect it is a useful way to reduce caseloads… Surely, any parent who is genuinely struggling and in need of continuing services will phone? Perhaps not. When I receive these letters I read them, think ‘I will do that tomorrow, and place them on ‘the pile of things which must be dealt with’. The next day, if something hasn’t been put on top of ‘the letter asking me to phone’, I might look, think ‘I must do that before the deadline’ and carry on with my day. The pile grows. Eventually the pile gets too messy and I have a sort through. At this point I find the ‘letter asking me to phone’ and realise it is too late.

My reason for telling you this is that the people who respond to these letters promptly may not be the people most in need of your service or provision. Many of them will be, but please spare a thought for those of us in need of what you provide, who should remain on your caseload, but who missed the deadline. I know that services are over-stretched and perhaps you don’t have time to chase up every letter sent, but you could consider alternative methods of communication. If only you had provided an email address…

Mother blaming

I am sure that everyone has heard of the ‘refrigerator mother’ theory of autism. The one where us cold, distant, emotionless mothers cause our children to retreat into their own worlds? Whilst there is no evidence to suggest that parenting causes autism, the ‘refrigerator mother’ legacy continues to impact on us today. Numerous mothers of autistic children are being sent on generic parenting courses and being subjected to intrusive, and often inappropriate, family therapy, and worse, because professionals are missing the obvious. That there is a reasonable probability that one or both parents of an autistic child are also on the autistic spectrum.

One of the first books I read after my son was diagnosed was Mike Stanton’s ‘Learning to Live with High Functioning Autism’. It is an excellent book to instil confidence in parents of newly diagnosed children. In it he shares a profile which many mothers of autistic children seeking diagnosis and ‘treatment’/provision might fit. I reproduce it, with his comments in brackets, here:

Are often upper class, well-educated persons (articulate, educated parents are often the best at obtaining services from a system that is not too user friendly).

Remain uncharacteristically calm in view of the victim’s perplexing medical symptoms (we all know that stress makes our children worse).

Welcome medical tests that are painful to the child (only if they are necessary).

Praise medical staff excessively (only the good ones that understand autism!).

Appear to be very knowledgeable about the victim’s illness (we have to be knowledgeable about our children as not too many other people are).

Have some medical education, either formal or through self-initiated study or experience (I have had to teach myself some basic medical stuff in order to evaluate conflicting theories and therapies for autism).

Might have a history of the same illness as the victim (there is a genetic element to autism).

Typically shelter victim from outside activities, such as school or play with other children (I have withdrawn my son from school to protect his mental health. Many parents become home educators because the schools cannot cope with their children).

Allow only selected persons close to their children (yes, the autism friendly ones).

Maintain a high degree of attentiveness to the victim (some people with autism benefit from 24-hour provision, seven days a week. Most of us are papering over the cracks in available provision).

Seem to find emotional satisfaction when the child is hospitalised, because of the staff’s praise of their apparent ability to be a superior caregiver (so, we respond well when professionals praise our parenting ability? There’s a novelty!).

Stanton, M. (2000). Learning to Live with High Functioning Autism: A Parent’s Guide for Professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

The use of the word victim provides us with a clue. This list is from an FBI profile of Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy offenders (MBP; now known clinically as Factitious Disorder imposed on another). Is it any wonder that we are eyed with suspicion? It is easy to see that when you take this profile and then factor in a mother who is autistic, particularly if she is not diagnosed, how communication and behaviours could be dramatically, and potentially catastrophically, misinterpreted. Being accused of exaggerating and falsifying reported behaviours is not that uncommon among parents of all additional needs. If you are an autistic mother, with communication difficulties, perhaps some odd mannerisms, struggling with eye contact (often mistakenly seen as a sign of dishonesty in neurotypical people) and maybe not very organised, the chance of you being blamed for your child’s problems are greater. It may be implied that a mother is presenting with a Factitious Disorder, faking her child’s symptoms to serve her own needs, to access services or for financial gain. In extreme cases, children have been removed from their families on this premise. A report produced by Autism Women Matter highlights the consequences for autistic children and their families when professionals fail to consider or recognise that mothers can be autistic too.

Final thoughts

Factitious Disorder (MBP) is an extreme example, but with the potential for devastating consequences. I would suggest that if you are a professional working with a family with an autistic child or children, and you have concerns that the mother is behaving oddly, don’t jump to a mother blaming conclusion, remind yourself that the ‘refrigerator mother’ theory has been de-bunked, take a moment to consider that she may be autistic too. Think about how you can improve communication, because, ultimately, all professional relationships are built on communication.

Remind yourself that autistic mothers are probably at their most vulnerable before they are diagnosed. Some mothers might be horrified at the thought that they are autistic, so careful thought will be needed to ensure understanding and meeting of needs whilst respecting her privacy. Autistic mothers are perhaps less likely to perform stereotypical gender roles which, sadly, still raises eyebrows and elicits judgements about our mothering. Without a diagnosis we are at risk of being misunderstood and misinterpreted, as well as misunderstanding and misinterpreting you. With or without a diagnosis we need you to believe, respect and support us. Most of us are doing the best we can.

Many thanks to Rhi for permission to quote from her, as yet, unpublished novel.

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