When my son was born, I felt that my world was broken into a million shards and there I was, desperately trying to put them together with trembling, bleeding fingers.
Breastfeeding felt like a violation of my body and my personal space (I gave up after a week).
My son’s crying caused me actual physical pain, as if someone were drilling a hole in my skull.
The lack of routine was devastating. I felt that life was spiraling out of control and that I was no longer safe.
Motherhood is supposed to be blissful. There’s this instant bond, the emotional intensity of breastfeeding, the deep joy you feel when you start understanding your little one’s screams and whimpers. And then there’s the fun of cooking a delicious family dinner when your toddler is cheerfully assisting you…
Well, it might be that way. For neurotypical women. For moms with autism, it might be extremely different.
In this post, I’ll cover the main challenges of being an autistic parent, specifically a mom of babies and/or toddlers. Even though all of us are different, I hope you find my coping strategies useful.
The sad truth about women and autism
Just a decade ago, most doctors believed that autism affected more boys than girls. Even now, women are twice as likely to get diagnosed as men.
Girls are better at masking and acting like neurotypical people. They might be labeled “weird” or “awkward” or whatever because the acting isn’t always successful, but they often go undiagnosed until adulthood — and often until they become mothers.
You might start reading about childhood ASD and recognize some of the traits in yourself. You might start wondering why motherhood feels so terrible and realize you’ve been autistic all along.
If you haven’t seen this lecture by Tony Attwood yet, I strongly recommend you do. It might help you understand your struggles better.
Why being a mom with autism is so stressful
Autistic people of all genders can fall in love and have children. But autistic dads can often “get away” from social scrutiny. After all, dads don’t have those mommy instincts. And it’s socially acceptable for a dad to spend most of his time away from his kids.
But moms are supposed to be intuitive and empathetic. Moms are supposed to be OK with the constant touching, with the screaming, with all the sensory input that’s an integral part of parenting. And if you’re a mom with autism, you don’t live up to these expectations.
Combine this with the overwhelming feeling of guilt that accompanies many new mothers, and you’ve got a perfect postpartum depression brewing up. Make sure you have a trusted mental health professional to support you on your parenting journey.
You. Are. Good. Enough
Being autistic doesn’t make you an incapable parent. Yes, your parenting style is going to be different and you’re going to face unique challenges… but in the end, you can be an amazing mom — even if you don’t feel this way now.
If your child turns out to be neurodiverse as well (which is quite probable), you’re an absolutely invaluable guide for them, someone who can truly understand them and relate to their experience — and someone who can teach then healthy coping strategies out of your own experience.
But being the autistic parent of a neurotypical child has its benefits, too.
After all, you’re exposing your child to neurodiversity from an early age.
Also, you’re able to respect diversity, be it neurological, gender, or racial. Yes, this sounds trivial, but quite a lot of parents struggle with accepting their child as they are.
Don’t let guilt get the better of you. Just do the best you can — but don’t forget to take care of your needs, too.
There’s a belief that motherhood involves absolute selflessness. You’re no longer yourself, you’ve got a tiny being semi-permanently attached to you, and you’re eager to sacrifice your needs for theirs. You have to breastfeed even if you hate it, you have to follow their schedule even if it throws your life into chaos.
Well, this is bullshit.
Your child needs is a reasonably happy, well-functioning mom.
This doesn’t mean you can neglect your son or daughter. But as a mom with autism, you need some extra self-care. And you might need to fight for it because sometimes family members don’t recognize your needs.
The key to becoming a successful autistic parent is to involve your partner A LOT or find additional caregivers. Otherwise, you’ll end up as an exhausted wreck, like I did.
Delegate the parenting chores that overwhelm you, or find healthy coping strategies.
Also, don’t let yourself fall into the trap of guilt and self-hate. Society has rigid and often unrealistic expectations of mothers. But as long as you’re not neglecting or abusing your child, you’re good enough. Really.
Sharing your caregiving duties with someone else or sending your baby to daycare as early as possible don’t make you a bad mother.
Why can’t I bond with my child?
There’s a stereotypical belief that women are supposed to bond with their children immediately after birth. There’s this instant spark and BOOM, you’re magically in love with every burp and every fart. You can understand each of their tiny facial expressions and their incoherent whimpers.
But guess what? This doesn’t happen every time, with every woman. It’s OK if your bonding doesn’t fit the stereotype.
It’s also OK to feel no bond at first. You might be in constant sensory overload, living from meltdown to meltdown, and bonding with your baby may be just too much for you.
Take care of your needs first and the love will grow.
Remember that you’re not the only person in the world. Your child is going to bond with quite a few people, so it’s OK if you’re not the warmest and cuddliest mom ever. Your bond might grow deeper when your child is able to communicate in a more coherent, less subtle way.
Coping with a lack of routine
As an autistic person, you might need to rely on routines and predictable schedules in order to function. And becoming a parent disrupts ALL of your routines.
Yes, there are all those people people who claim their babies slept through the night since they were three weeks old. And at 6 months old, they had a perfect schedule that allowed their mom to build three businesses from home.
But this doesn’t mean you have to drown in absolute chaos.
I talk a lot about sharing caregiving duties with someone else. Whenever this other person is taking care of your child for a few hours, try to spend that time in a quiet place, doing the things that help you feel safe and in control.
After that, the baby’s chaotic schedule won’t feel as overwhelming. Being a mom will be just one part of your day, not some kind of all-encompassing chore.
Help! I can’t get anything done!
Usually, I’d try and do something for 5 seconds… and within these 5 seconds, my son would find a sharp object in a room that seemed childproof, hit his head on a random thing, or distract me in any other way.
And the slightest distraction can throw me off balance for half an hour or so. Happy stock photos like this one below are a massive NOPE for me.
So all I could do was babysit. Literally 100% babysitting with nothing else I could do.
This was driving me insane. I had deadlines and urgent revisions and all kinds of things… but here I was, jailed in the nursery, crying softly because life was passing by and all I could do was watch a kid bang on blocks with a hammer. After 10 pm, my husband would come home from work and that’s when I could deal with my work.
Even simple chores like cooking and cleaning were impossible.
If you’re anything like me, focusing on two things at once is incredibly draining and leads to overload very quickly. You get nothing done and you’re so exhausted that all you can do is cry and snap at anyone who comes close.
Don’t try to be a multitasking superhero.
Your superpower is NOT multitasking, but doing one thing with passion and focus. Teach this skill to your kids. They’ll thank you later.
If you’re busy taking care of your baby or toddler, let someone else do the cooking and lower your standards when it comes to cleaning. As long as you’re not tripping over toys, the room is tidy.
Alternatively, let someone else take over the caregiving duties and focus on your work and chores. My husband had to leave his job and spend a month just being unemployed while I was growing my freelance business because otherwise, I just couldn’t cope. Then our son went to daycare and life went back to normal.
Talking to people is exhausting. How do I talk to my baby all the time?
If you’re like me, talking to a baby feels like a weird unnatural chore, especially if your partner expects you to talk in that weird manner known as Motherese.
I can spend an entire day without saying a word. Small talk is one of the most exhausting and pointless things ever invented. As a mom with autism, you understand.
But babies and toddlers need lots of language input and lots of interaction.
So… how do you make sure your child’s needs are met without wasting your energy on talking?
Just let someone else do most of the talking! It can be your partner (if they’re more talkative) or another caregiver.
Alternatively, you can pretend you’re a sports commentator or a YouTuber. In this video I’m gonna show you how I wash baby bottles, hit the subscribe Just let someone else do most of the talking!button for more!
This feels silly but I find it more natural than the weird baby talk used by most parents. Find something that works for you, and don’t pressure yourself into activities that drain your energy.
Coping with noises and smells
If you have any kind of extreme sensitivity to sounds or smells… parenting is going to be a wild ride.
Many autistic people are sensitive to sudden loud noises — just like the ones that a baby makes at 3 am. And 10 minutes of non-stop screaming can send quite a few people into a total meltdown.
Unfortunately, kids don’t have a volume control knob.
So… get earplugs.
And invest in a good pair of noise-canceling headphones.
I thought they were overrated until I tried them on in an electronics store. Now I can tell you that they are a life-changing invention for anyone with sound sensitivity. And I’m not an affiliate marketer so I’m not trying to sell you anything. Just believe me.
Here’s another tip.
Make sure you can delegate parenting duties to someone else for AT LEAST a few hours every day. Spend those hours enjoying music or other sounds you enjoy. After that, the screaming will be more bearable.
And one more tip. It sounds cynical, but sometimes it’s the only option.
If you’re entirely overwhelmed by the crying, it’s OK to leave your baby in their bed for a few minutes and leave the room. Two or three minutes won’t traumatize your child, but they might save your sanity. Take a tiny timeout and do whatever comforts you. I normally lock myself in the bathroom and scream or put my head under running water.
Not losing self-control is important. Shaken baby syndrome is a very real and potentially fatal thing. This is when an enraged adult shakes a baby and literally damages their brain. So if you feel that you might experience uncontrollable aggression, LEAVE THE ROOM.
As for the smells… I’m sorry, there’s nothing you can do. I delegate diaper changes to my husband whenever he’s home, so I don’t have to vomit all over the place because of the smell.
Coping with unsolicited parenting advice
As an autistic mom, I wasn’t sure what to make of relatives and random people bombarding me with outdated and often ridiculous parenting advice.
The advice was probably well-meant so I wasn’t supposed to get angry at them but… why are they treating me like I’m totally dumb and unable to read a basic parenting book?
I felt like my parenting authority was being undermined. It’s true that I have zero intuition when it comes to parenting, but I’m smart, right?
So I got angry.
And once again everyone thought I was being angry and snappy for no reason.
Yes, I’m a socially awkward monster. Sorry if that’s an inconvenience for you.
If you can manage to stop the conversation politely whenever a well-meaning family member is trying to give you unwanted advice, do it at all costs. It might be impolite by neurotypical standards, but you’re saving yourself a lot of stress.
If there’s one thing you can take away from this article, let it be this.
You are a great mom… and you have very important needs of your own. Don’t hesitate to delegate caregiving to someone else. And don’t let stereotypical beliefs get into your way.
Do what feels good and natural for you, and let other people help you when you can’t cope.
I never managed to become a truly happy mother, but at least I’m coping. My shattered world is more or less glued together now. You can see the cracks, but at least it isn’t falling apart any longer.
Tony Attwood’s lecture
Originally published at https://www.resisting-entropy.com.