Photo: Tim James
By the time I was diagnosed with autism in my mid-40s, my children were all but grown up. The eldest was 25, and the youngest was 18. My diagnosis put my whole life in perspective, but it also raised many questions, including some surrounding family life. Would I have related to my own adoptive parents better, and perhaps been closer to them, if I didn’t have autism? Would my mothering style have meant that my children might have found life easier or harder growing up? Would I have been a better parent if I had been neurotypical?
For the most part, I think it’s been a good thing. If I had been diagnosed earlier, others might have judged my parenting more harshly. I’ve heard many stories from mothers with autism who say they are dismissed by healthcare professionals, school staff and other parents because their opinions are felt not to be as valid. On the other hand, if I had an early diagnosis, I would have coped better in education and probably found it easier to help my children with their homework—something I have never been able to do.
I didn’t intend to have a large family, and I certainly hadn’t planned to be a mother so young. Lucie arrived first, when I was just 20, followed by her sister, Tatti, three years later. Three years after that, I had Jack, and then, just 13 months later, Toby. By the time I was 27, I was a mother of four small children. When I had my first child, all my friends were either at university or backpacking around the world on a gap year. I couldn’t have done either. I didn’t even manage to graduate high school and couldn’t travel in my own country, England, alone without the help of my husband while we were dating. With few options, getting married and having babies seemed like, if not the only choice, the best available one.
I had no idea why I functioned differently from my peers or why I couldn’t make life work. I internalized it as failure. I grew up at a time when children were blamed for not achieving at school. No one ever spoke to me about it, except to tell me that I must try harder.
It is entirely conceivable that I could have gone my whole life without being diagnosed if it wasn’t for a simple twist of fate. I learned late that I (and my youngest child) have a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndromes. I was in the hospital, having tests for the condition, when a nurse just happened to recognize a meltdown I had. She raised autism as an issue. Initially, I dismissed it, but I went on to seek an assessment and was diagnosed.
Three years later, I am now more able to understand the impact that my different way of being has had on my life and my children.
In many ways, I grew up with them. Besides being just 20 when Lucie arrived, women with autism often seem younger than their years, and my autism has, in some respects, rendered me quite childlike. While most people mature in a linear way, for me it was more one step forward and two steps back. Millennials (a word I truly hate) talk about the trials of “adulting,” and it’s something I’m still coming to terms with. While my friends easily took on mortgages, jobs and busy social lives, I am overwhelmed by the idea of these things. They feel like they’re meant for other, more grown up people. Oddly, I didn’t feel like that about having children, but perhaps that’s because I found it easier to relate to them than I did to people my own age. It meant that, in many ways, I was able to interact easily with my own children at their level.
I found being a child and a teenager extremely hard. At school, I felt like an outsider, and I struggled to connect with kids my own age. There were so many seemingly useless rules and so very little control. Very early on in my parenting, I realized that I would do anything to protect my children from the same difficulties I had when I was young. I didn’t want my children to feel that claustrophobic panic that comes with having little or no agency. I hated being forced to eat, and being made to visit the homes of relatives and family friends where I might have to eat made me want to throw myself on the floor and scream (which I often did). Other people’s houses just felt wrong to me: Nothing smelled the way it should, and the rooms were laid out in a way that didn’t seem right to me. Whenever possible, I allowed them to do whatever they wanted to do. As long as it wouldn’t harm them or anyone else, I saw no problem with it.
My children were more “free range” than their peers. I cared more about their happiness and sense of well-being than whether they attended school regularly, achieved academically or ate their five-a-day. I worried more about them being nice people, being politically engaged and having a social conscience than I did about them handing in homework on time—or at all—or anything happening on a sports field. Many people with autism have a hugely overdeveloped sense of fairness, and I think I naturally communicated this early on to my children. I didn’t have that same self-consciousness as many of my neurotypical friends that their children were a reflection of themselves, so I allowed them to grow into their own people very early on in their lives.
If, at any stage of their lives, they didn’t want to go to school, I didn’t make them. It seemed like such an infringement on their rights to force them to do anything that made them uncomfortable or unhappy. I felt that the damage done by if they were unhappy would be far worse than missing a vital element of algebra.
Autism is much misunderstood. Stereotypes abound, and many would assume that autism and motherhood don’t make comfortable bedfellows. I don’t believe this to be true. It has made my parenting style very different from that of my friends without autism and, in some ways, I think better.
People with autism are often portrayed as cold and lacking empathy. But often the opposite is true, and it has been argued that we are actually more empathetic. Because most research has been done on men and boys with autism, the softer, more nurturing side of autism is not often seen. Most people with autism have intense special interests, but more often than not, we tend to think about them being around trains or pylons rather than something like attachment parenting. An intense interest in raising children well and issues with the education system often lead moms with autism to homeschool their children, and they usually do an extraordinary job of it. I didn’t homeschool—I wouldn’t have known how to—but I have huge respect for those who do.
In fact, in many ways, it has been hugely advantageous to me, and I think it has made me a more nurturing mother. Seeing everything from a child’s perspective has made me hyper-aware of just how difficult each stage of childhood can be. If my children said “no,” we would explore the reasons why they didn’t want to take part in an activity, wear a certain item of clothing or eat the food they had just been given. In asking questions, I got to know my children on a deeper level and, as a result, we have an unusual closeness. As adults, they still contact me every day, and I am aware that our bond is deeper and stronger than most I see.
After my diagnosis, I asked my husband, Tim, if he thought my autism had affected my parenting. He pointed out that we had disagreed many times about discipline and the rules he felt needed to be set. “No child was ever grounded if they did something wrong or had their allowance taken away,” he said. “You would never allow it to happen. You never once told any of them off. You seemed to be allergic to confrontation of any kind and always chose what you saw as the path of least resistance.”
The fact that I felt disciplining the children wasn’t the right path was so alien to him. He had to put it down to some kind of emotional reaction—fear, perhaps, or an avoidance tactic. In fact, it was simply that traditional methods of discipline seemed illogical and counterproductive to me, and an honest conversation about where they’d gone wrong seemed kinder and more likely to yield results.
Looking back, my parenting differences were never more apparent than when my children were in their teens. I noticed just how logical, rather than emotional, my mothering was. While my friends would sob, rage and blame their children and themselves when things went wrong (such as children dropping out of college, drinking too much, experimenting with drugs or having pregnancy scares), my approach would be infinitely more pragmatic. If something went wrong, I would discuss it with my children, try to understand why they did it and and help them get back on track.
I don’t feel judged by others when it comes to parenting. I don’t have the gene that allows worries about what friends or family think. Instead, for me, it has always been about the child and smoothing their path through life. My husband feels differently: He believes my approach somehow let the children off the hook when they did something that he thought should have had consequences. By and large, when we disagreed, my way won. I simply used calm logic to tackle the argument and eventually he would give in.
Tim is right: I can’t remember a time when any of them were punished or given a timeout. If they did something that was, in some way, undesirable, we would sit down at the kitchen table and discuss it. This approach isn’t for everyone, but it worked for us and created a strong bond of trust. They swear that they have never lied to me, and I believe them. Why would you lie when you have a mother you can say anything to without fear of reprisal?
If mistakes were made—and, of course, they were (who among us have escaped our teens without making some truly dreadful decisions?)—I wanted them to feel like they could come to me before the problem spiralled out of control. I didn’t want them to ever feel like they had to hide or cover up something they had done. I wanted everything out in the open and for us to tackle it together.
I adored my children as babies, but I found them harder as toddlers, when they seemed to be on a suicide mission and there was no reasoning with them. Why would anyone want to stick a fork in a plug socket? I think my autism made this stage harder than it would be for a neurotypical parent. Most people with autism are hypersensitive to sensory input, and toddlers let out ear-piercing screeches, throw loud tantrums, use parents as a jungle gym and often have sticky fingers and runny noses—all things I found quite tough to cope with.
But it was when they got into their teens that parenting became its most magical for me. There is something about the way they think at that age that I find enchanting and relatable. In many ways, I think my mind is still stuck in teen mode. Contrary to most parents’ traumatic tales and horror stories, the teenage years were a heavenly time for me, with the house full of noisy (in a good way), bouncy, interesting and interested people who could clear out the fridge in three minutes flat. There was a sharing of political ideals I still hadn’t moved on from, and animated conversations around the kitchen table that I could be part of.
I really miss those days. My youngest two kids left for university a couple of years ago, and the pain—which cut deep—is only just starting to subside. I miss them every day, but I feel grateful that they come home as often as they can. It reassures me that, somehow, despite learning about my autism late, I did something right.
Laura James is a journalist, author and columnist whose work has appeared in many national and international titles, including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Vice and Marie Claire. She is the author of nine books, and her latest—Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World—is a memoir on having autism. She campaigns for autism awareness, has four children and lives in Norfolk, England.
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