Parenting on the Spectrum

A woman sitting on the ground, holding a child

I have wanted to be a mom for as long as I can remember. In particular, I wanted to be a mom to a little girl. I envisioned myself as the stay at home mom type. My daughter and I would have Saturday afternoon tea parties. 

We would cook Sunday morning pancakes in our pajamas– you know, the fancy kind that come out looking like cute forest creatures. We would spend quiet evenings snuggled on the sofa and fill our days with adventure, exploration, and laughter. I honestly thought it would be pretty easy. I was so very wrong.

My daughter was born when I was newly twenty-three. I was single, not yet finished with my degree, and had a pretty ferocious case of Postpartum Depression and Anxiety (PPD and PPA). These factors paired with my sensitive nature and a particularly fussy newborn made the first few months of her life extremely difficult. I knew I loved her, but I could not really feel it. What I did feel, was terrified and overwhelmed.

It is a hard truth to admit, but I hated being alone with her. I constantly worried that I could not take care of her well enough or handle the stress that came along with being her mom. I was fully surprised by the realization that I did not enjoy being a mother. These negative emotions lessened substantially as she grew older and I was treated for PPD and PPA. I was able to fully bond with her, but the feelings of fear and incapability lingered.

Until recently, I did not know the extent of my own neurological differences so I did not understand why I found almost all aspects of motherhood to be so difficult. My anxiety and sensory overload were compounded by a heavy guilt. The three fed off each other constantly and left me depleted. No one knew this, though, because it was downright embarrassing. How could I possibly admit that though I loved my child, I could not say I loved being her mother?

Eventually, I learned that I fall on what was previously known as the Asperger’s end of the Autism Spectrum (Frankly, I refuse to seriously use the phrase “High-functioning Autism”). One aspect of this includes that I am easily overstimulated by touch, noise, and unplanned events. Parenting is full of all three.

Parenting a child who likely falls somewhere on the spectrum herself? It is beyond overwhelming. My daughter is my favorite human on the planet. She is brilliant, vibrant, creative, and so very full of love that it is almost heartbreaking. I love her more than I knew I had the capacity for.

But, that doesn’t change the fact that parenting with autism is straight-up sensory hell. There is so much noise that at times I honestly want to use ear plugs. The amount of touch required is managed by pure will power and extreme devotion. Navigating one of her meltdowns over having to wear socks that feel “wrong” or eat food that isn’t the exact right temperature or process big emotions that she is unsure of the source for, takes every ounce of patience I possess. It is beyond hard. It is something which I do not have a word for.

I am not a martyr by any means. I chose to become a parent and while my struggles are different than that of most people they are not singular and they were not thrust upon me without my consent. This is my circus and she is my monkey. I would not have it any other way; I would choose her over and over in any version of reality I could possibly be presented with. I am filled with gratitude for the tea parties, and sofa snuggles, and Sunday morning pancakes (that look nothing at all like forest creatures).  I am thankful to say that I have grown to love being a mother.

But, I do wish it were easier. More than that, I wish the people in my life understood the means I go through to parent well. Yet still, more than either of those things I want other parents with autism to know they are not alone and they are not bad parents because of their differences. They are incredible warriors who fight so hard every day against demons no one else sees. They persevere relentlessly for their children, and that is what makes them the best advocate possible for their kids.

I want them to see that autism does not make them less of a parent than anyone else; it simply colors the way in which they connect with their children. When those connections are healthy, they are beautiful beyond words. I want neurodiverse parents to understand that, just like their neurotypical friends and family, who they are is enough. It has always been and will always be enough.

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2 Responses

  1. This is so beautiful! I remember the days when my daughter was little and just how hard it was. It’s hard in other ways now. Sensory wise (apart from when they are very upset) I promise it gets so much easier! 💕

  2. Hey, it’s very interesting to read your perspective here, particularly as it seems to be a mirror image of my own. I never wanted children and always thought I would be devoted to my special interests rather than other human beings – that somehow they would go forth and multiply in the world like my own special version of children.

    Long before I was diagnosed with Asperger’s, I knew that I was different in some way and needed to control aspects of the immediate world around me to keep my grip on things (or another way of putting it would be: to keep the mask on/up). So when my partner expressed an interest in having children, I worried constantly that having a child would eat up the breathing space that I needed just to function and I feared becoming resentful of that. She tried to reassure me that this was a natural phase lots of potential parents go through, but I knew that it was more than that for me.

    Even before my wife became pregnant, I’d preempted all the bad stuff. Foreseeing all the terrible stuff that can happen before it does is part of my coping mechanism in the world and I was even afraid to get into a relationship in the first place because of having to eventually confront the idea of having children. So unlike you, I never thought parenting would be easy…I’d already condemned it to being a living hell. A voice in my head (that constantly reminds me about the morals of the neurotypical world) told me ‘that’s a selfish way to think’, but I knew that I couldn’t have children for altruistic reasons (i.e. purely to satisfy my partner or to further the human race). Instead I needed to link it to a need in myself…but I couldn’t see how this could possibly work.

    Now, more than three years later, I get this completely. My son is far more a grounding factor in my life than a destabilising one. Yes, there’s less breathing space and the challenges are many – most days after just taking him to kindergarten and returning home I feel completely done with the world – but he also forced me to establish a routine in my life that was missing beforehand. Something things have to be done at certain times and in certain ways and whilst that was hard it first (especially in the first few years), it’s now become somehow freeing. I am somehow liberated from all the possible options.

    He also has helped me a lot socially. Whereas I don’t connect well with others in everyday life on my own, I do a bit better with him around. He forces me to engage with others, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – but at least I’m getting some outside perspective and not just isolating completely. On the other hand, since having him I don’t maintain any other friendships (as my social-cup is already full), but I also feel more justified in keeping time compartmentalised for myself (having more understanding of myself and Asperger’s Syndrome helps here too). I still dread the day when my son becomes more ‘socialised’ and I have to deal with the chaos of talking to, managing or even being in the presence of multiple children (I shudder to think of having them in the sanctuary of my own home) but I guess I will cope.

    Things are certainly not always easy, but I’ve gotten better as things have become more stable. It’s still a fine balance, but I’m lucky in that my son accepts my issues and doesn’t even see them as such…so far. My partner also takes on a lot of the day to day (as well as holding down a full-time job) and I’ve learned a lot from her about how she manages things. The first few years was basically me copying her behaviours, like I’ve done so many times before socially in my life. With a less understanding partner or a child with more of his/her own issues it could have all been very different. In the first years, I worried a lot about my son having his own developmental issues – as I felt it would be a bad cocktail with my own issues – but so far this doesn’t seem to be the case.

    The one issue I’m wrestling with is how I can possibly having a child, a relationship and a job all at the same time. I feel like two out of the three might be all I can ever sustain and that perhaps I need to settle for that. But I feel my natural autistic children (my ideas) are suffering somehow…but it certainly helps to write about it!

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