Asperger’s and Motherhood (Part 2)

This is the second in a series of posts about being a mom with Asperger’s–a combination of reflections on how my AS affected my parenting abilities and some advice that I wish someone has given me when I was struggling to make sense of being an unconventional mom. Hopefully some of what I learned the hard way will be useful to other moms in the same situation.

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I know I haven’t been a perfect mother but I also know that the perfect mother doesn’t exist. As moms, we do the best we can under often challenging circumstances. We each have our individual strengths and weaknesses as parents. But aspie parents have some unique strengths and weaknesses.

Everything from issues with sensory overload to problems with social interaction can affect our ability to parent effectively or even competently. In his starkly honest assessment of aspie parents, Dr. Tony Attwood lists some of the many challenges a family may face when one parent has Asperger’s: “the imposition of inflexible routines and expectations . . . the intolerance of noise, mess and any intrusion into the parent’s solitary activities, the perceived invasion of the home by the children’s friends, and a black and white analysis of people.”

These potential challenges may begin to emerge during pregnancy and quickly intensify with the arrival of the baby.

Babies are stressful. They’re unpredictable. They’re messy. They’re demanding. They don’t care if mom is sleep-deprived or suffering from sensory overload or finds breastfeeding painful or needs a couple of hours of alone time to regroup. When you throw in postpartum hormonal fluctuations and the challenges of Asperger’s, it’s no surprise that the result can be epic meltdowns more fit for a toddler than a new mother.

When Jess was a baby, there were days when I felt like I was going to lose my mind if she didn’t stop crying. I remember one day in particular when I found myself standing in the dining room, sobbing uncontrollablly and repeatedly banging my head against the wall. If you’ve ever seen an autistic child have a meltdown, it probably looked something like this. I can only imagine how terrifying this must have been for my husband–watching the mother of his child regress to that point.

But instead of losing his temper or fleeing, he was there to rescue me before I could slip too far into that abyss. He kept me tethered to reality in a concrete way that allowed me to stay connected to Jess when my natural instinct was to withdraw.

Jess at 7 months

Some Tips for New Aspie Moms

One of the keys to surviving the first months of motherhood as an aspie mom is support. All new moms need time to themselves to regroup, but for aspie moms this is especially important.

Honestly, there may be times when you feel like you can’t stand to be around your baby. He  won’t stop crying or he won’t settle down for a much anticipated nap or he’s in the mood to play when you’re exhausted. Don’t feel guilty. Needing a timeout doesn’t make you a bad mother.

It’s okay–healthy, in fact–to ask for help from a partner, relative or babysitter so you can take a short break. And if getting an hour to yourself means preventing a meltdown, that’s going to make you a better mom in the long run.

If you find your anxiety level rising at a time when you aren’t able to immediately call on one of the supportive people in your life, it may help to have some strategies you can draw on to de-escalate your stress. Many of things that babies and toddlers find calming may also be soothing for moms with Asperger’s. Here are a few options to consider:

  • A rocking chair: Lots of adult aspies still find rocking to be soothing and when you’re doing it with a baby in a rocking chair, you’ll find that no one looks at you funny. I had two rocking chairs as a kid and a comfy rocker was one the first things I put on my wish list as a mom-to-be.
  • Music: Singing to your baby, dancing around the living room with your toddler or just enjoying a favorite song together can all be soothing. For a few months as an infant, the only thing that put my daughter to sleep at night was U2’s Joshua Tree album, played at what was probably an inappropriately loud volume.
  • Water: Many aspies say that water is calming. If you have access to a swimming pool, you and your child might enjoy spending time in the water together. Once your toddler is old enough, you may find that she enjoys playing in the tub while you soak in a warm bath.
  • Pets: A dog or cat is often high on the list of expert recommendations for adult aspies. Petting, cuddling or playing quietly with the family pet can be a way to spend time with your child while you de-escalate.
  • Walking: If you have a quiet place to walk, you may find that exercise combined with fresh air and sunshine is a good way to head off a potential meltdown for you and an instant sleep-inducer for your little one.
  • Driving: The same goes for a drive along quiet roads. I remember evenings when my husband and I drove around with Jess in the back seat because it seemed like the only way to get an hour of quiet time.

Of course, there’s the toddler who screams the minute you put him in his car seat and the aspie mom who finds driving stressful rather than relaxing. Not all of the strategies that worked for me will work from everyone. Hopefully this list will be a jumping off point for you when it comes to finding “rescue” activities that you can share with your child.

Next in the series: The joys and terrors of toddlerhood

33 thoughts on “Asperger’s and Motherhood (Part 2)”

  1. I was such a mess after my son was born. I would get him to sleep and lay him down only to have him immediately wake up – over and over. Many days I would sit in the glider holding him for 2-3 hours while he slept because I wasn’t sure I could control my reactions if I had to go through the stress of trying to lay him down again. I was largely non-functional for several months and eventually went on an anti-depressant, which helped me regain at least some ability to handle daily life. I so wish I had the insight and understanding I have now during that time – it would have been great to be able to enjoy it more.

    1. Oh, I know what you mean. When you’re immersed in those early days of motherhood it’s nearly impossible to see the forest for the trees. I wonder if all mothers feel that way – that if we knew then what we know now, we could have enjoyed our baby’s first few months more?

  2. Oh I so relate to this. When my son was born, I was soooo stressed and anxious about his sleep particularly. It was so unpredictable. I ended up baby-wearing him for all his day-sleeps as I just couldn’t cope with the stress of him continually waking him up if I lay him down. I then transitioned him into a baby hammock and bounced him to sleep. I still found each new development a huge stress and struggle. I have only recently been diagnosed with Aspergers, so am taking all that in too. My son is now 21 months and really active. I’m struggling to adapt to that too and keep up with him. Love your blog so far. Thank you. We need more of this for us Aspie Mums.

    1. It’s so hard when they’re little because everything is changing so rapidly, sometimes daily it seems. It would be great for aspie moms to have some more detailed resources for their children’s life stages. I guess we’ll have to create them for ourselves!

  3. I’m not technically Asperger’s but share many of the challenges and strengths that Aspies tend to display. I’ll have to keep these in mind for when/if I have a child… About ten years from now as I’m 14. Good to learn this stuff ahead of time.

    1. I definitely recommend waiting at least 10 years to have children, yes! 🙂

      Still, it’s great that you’re curious what’s in store. The ASD spectrum is a wide one and it’s possible to have lots of traits but not necessarily at level that qualifies for a diagnosis. Knowing your challenges and strengths is so important, though. Good for you that you’ve recognized yours and you’re seeking out more information.

  4. Can I ask you something?
    I know a mom who is totally out of touch with her kids emotional needs. She doesn’t understand that they need warmth and love. When you talk to her, she has her head bent down a little looking at some spot on the side. Does this sound like asperger’s to you?

  5. I wish I had found your blog before or right after I had my son! This right here …

    ” I remember one day in particular when I found myself standing in the dining room, sobbing uncontrollablly and repeatedly banging my head against the wall. If you’ve ever seen an autistic child have a meltdown, it probably looked something like this. I can only imagine how terrifying this must have been for my husband–watching the mother of his child regress to that point.”

    I would lock myself in the bathroom, sit in the tub and bang my head against the shower wall. My Fiance thought I was losing my mind, we had no idea at the time that Aspergers was even a possibility or that it could account for my accelerated break down. Unfortunately he wasn’t the most supportive at the time (he has since changed) neither was my mother. I ended up in complete meltdown mode, uncontrollable screaming, arms flailing, it was a very scary. Antidepressants helped a little but really things didn’t start to improve until he got older and didn’t need to be attached to me all hours of the day. If I ever have another child, I will do things differently.

    1. It’s comforting to hear that someone else experienced this. I can only imagine how confusing and scary it must have been for our partners to witness.

      As my daughter got older, things definitely got better for me too. The toddler and elementary school years were a lot of fun. But I think those early days scared me off having any more children because I just wasn’t sure if I could manage another infant, especially while caring for a toddler or preschooler. On the other hand, I know lots of autistic moms who have multiple children and are terrific mothers, so it’s certainly possible.

    2. My husband came home one day to find me standing in the living room, sobbing, holding our infant daughter very tightly. I was holding her that tightly because I was afraid that if I didn’t, I would throw her across the room; she just wouldn’t stop crying and I didn’t know what to do. He had to pry her away from me.

  6. Thank you for writing down your experiences so frankly and so simply. And thank you to the commenters who shared their “sleep” coping strategies for their infants. For those of us who don’t relate well to others because we are actually different than most, it is such a relief to be able to relate directly with others Moms’ experiences.

    I am finding Motherhood to be extremely isolating in that I cannot pay attention to other adults and my baby simultaneously. I simply cannot. I have tried. Which means I am consistently alone with my 6 month old. That’s compounded by the same sleep coping others described… She will only nap on me (literally) because I spent hours sitting rigidly still to keep her asleep in my arms just to not have to hear any more crying… So I can’t share my attention properly if I try to have a conversation and she’s present so she fusses and I can’t get away from her while she naps because she won’t nap in her crib… Etc. it seems my experiences are thankfully not unique. Others have suffered them and survived.

    It is so helpful to know other Aspie Moms enjoyed the toddler years. NT mothers speak of them with the same dread as they speak of the infant months with affection, so I was hoping… Maybe the toddler years will be easier. Even just a tiny itty bitty bit less tough would be amazing.

    1. The good news is they don’t stay tiny forever! That sounds really stressful that your baby needs you to hold her to sleep. I remember all of the tricks I used to try to get nap times to work. We had a wind-up swing that would swing just long enough to put my daughter to sleep and when it stopped she would wake up and I’d have to start all over again. There were some days where I really thought I wasn’t going to make it. Hang in there because it does get better. I loved the toddler years so much and I hope you are treated to a similar experience with your daughter.

  7. The time that you spend coping with the needs of a infant can indeed be very strange. I felt like I was in some kind of parallel universe when my first one was born. I became a grandma just a few months ago. Please, please remember everybody, the time you spend with your baby, whether pleasant or unpleasant, is super super super important and inexpressibly valuable to your child. So don’t ever think of this time as being wasted somehow. Standing with your baby and coping is being a very, very loving and responsible parent. Keep up the good work.

  8. When I’ve got a child I felt my symptoms getting worse and worse as soon as the lack of sleeping increased. Probably some other medical reasons worked (e. g. hormones or I don’t know what). It becomes harder and harder to manage language skills I often find people misunderstanding me, bulling my way of talking, my echolalia and perseveration. I become less and less socially adopted, it becomes harder to do my job duties, I feel myself more and more stressed and long distance running is the only relief for me. Did you feel something in common when you became a young mother? How did you manage it?

      1. when I became a young mother I found echolalia appearing again (though I had not one since I was 20). It became harder to relate with people, they understand me worse just because my language became more strange. I don’t know how to manage it.

  9. To help those that may benefit from a “what to really expect list” this is a developmental checklist that goes month by month through infancy. These checklists are strikingly accurate. I prefer the H.E.L.P by Vort if you can get a hold of it. But this one is pretty good and should give some of you with anxiety a heads up. http://ecdc.syr.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Developmental_checklists_Updated2012.pdf We have just recently begun to believe that my wife has AS and I was lucky enough to stumble across this website. Thanks so very much.

  10. Dear Ms. Kim,

    I appreciate very much that you speak so openly about the motherhood issue.

    I am neurotypical and have a neurotypical child, and think that most neurotypical babies scream only when they are hungry, need their diaper changed, or feel uncomfortable or scared by a reason that is easy to detect. In particular when they are older, they might also cry because they want and deserve some extra attention; when they are very little they are after all so busy with moving themselves, manipulating objects, watching and listening, and get normally a good deal of attention in any case due to their fragility and cuteness. So if NT babies scream, they scream only for a little while, till you attend to a particular need of theirs, longer only when they are tired and fight against giving up this fantastic and interesting world for something as boring as a nap.

    I know how hard it is when your baby is crying more and you dont know why. I had a breast-feeding problem that was detected quite late (too short frenulum of tongue, happens quite often by the way), and although my baby stopped when I gave him the breast, and did not start crying the hour after he had been fed, and also quickly slept through the night with only one wake-up, it was quite an exhausting experience compared to how easy it was once the frenulum was cut.

    But dont you think that babies of aspie moms cry very often simply more because they also have the condition at least to a phenotype degree, so suffer mainly from sensory processing issues? And wouldnt that make up a much better reason for getting the extra support that you aspie mothers need much more badly than us neurotypicals moms (Not that we wouldnt need it very badly, too! It is just a terrible experience to have one s life reduced to attend round-the-clock to baby that is non-verbal and to be cut of the real life and the many other concerns any human being has; I threatened the father of my child to leave him, and move to my sister to raise her and my kids together with her, should he not take his parental part-time or pay for a two-half-days nanny.)

    I am German, and in Germany we have an extra term for babies that are screaming much more than others (“cry-babies”), and I wonder if a similar term exists in English,and if so, if there is any theory claiming that many of those babies are on the spectrum, or have at least the phenotype of the condition. It would just make so much sense to me, not only because my very aspie friend has had a cry- baby in her little less aspie child.

    I am also interested in this issue because I am doing a research on Goethe, and believe him to have had Asperger (overwhelming proof for an historic case, Prof. Michael Fitzgerald has advanced the hypothesis, too) (I also know that much of his work has been written together with others, and the most famous early work,including the original Faust, the original Wilhelm Meister and Reinicke Fuchs, by his quite neurotypical sister). According to what his mother said to a Bettine von Arnim, Goethe must have screamed very often in his childhood, particularly in his dreams.

    If we dont get that link clear, there might be more mothers and families to be taken their children away from them, because they are thought to be unable to attend to their children s needs. It has been the case with that friend of mine. And there will be more aspie and non-aspie mothers unaware of that they do have a bigger challenge than other mothers with neurotypical ones have and that they should get some extra help without coming under the suspicion of being bad mothers.

    Then there might also be some different ways of dealing with a hypersensitive child compared to a normally sensitive child. I think of softer clothes and a more stable surrounding. Something along the lines of Skinner s babybox (Skinner was, like so many psychologists, most probably himself an aspie) although I feel not very comfortable with the thing in the whole. I also think that swaddling a new-born baby rather tightly into a big and rather elastic piece of cloth,and maybe (?) carrying a baby around in a sling, might be even more helpful for a baby with sensory issues than for a neurotypic one.

    I would be very interested in any aspie thought on my comment.

    1. Looking back I think it was a combination of my difficulties with breastfeeding and a touch of colic that contributed to those difficult months. I was a young mother and didn’t have a lot of resources to help me understand how to cope with either so it was especially trying for us.

    2. I was diagnosed with Autism at 29, and gave birth to my son at 25. So I was undiagnosed at the time. All of my ASD traits amplified after I gave birth to my son.

      I REALLY struggled to reach out for help as a new mom. I’m not sure if all other Aspies are like this, but asking for help means I have to be around someone and I often don’t like that. So as a new mom, I did not like the idea of everyone being around, it was like my private safe space was going to be invaded. My house is my safe zone, and I really don’t like when people come over, usually. The first week after our son was born I didn’t allow a single person to our house. So imagine, all of the grandparents and family members excited about their first grand-baby and I didn’t want anyone near me. The experience was not at all what I expected, and I became very depressed about it.

      On top of that, before we brought our son home, my mother in law and mother (without asking us) got the keys to our house and cleaned our house top to bottom, throwing out things, etc. Now this might sound like a totally amazing gesture to an NT, but to me I felt like my home was being invaded while in the hospital and I went into a total panic. I didn’t know what they had moved, what they had done, what had been thrown out, and it was horrible!! However, looking back I see that our house was a horrible mess and no baby should have been brought home in that environment. Having a clean home to bring the baby home to, well that was honestly a nice gift.

      The idea of my house being flooded with family and friends wanting to hold, touch, and take care of my child was horrifying. I didnt want anyone to hold him, or touch him, which is weird but it was very threatening. After a week and a half my mother finally said “I don’t know what is going on but you are going to HAVE to let us come over, you can’t do this totally by yourself”. So I finally did, let people over, and hated it!

      I found breastfeeding to be extremely uncomfortable and pumping even more so. Additionally, my son had bad reflux (he is now diagnosed as being on the spectrum). We used to say if he wasn’t sleeping or eating he was just crying, he cried non stop.

      Aspies don’t know how to ask for help sometimes, and even making that step to ask for help can be incredibly difficult. I dont want help, and I dont like admitting I need help, but then I wind up shutting down to where I have no other option, in order to move forward.

      Additionally, I have never felt that I was connected as a Mom. It is hard to explain, but things that other people just make sense of naturally, I had to be told (and told repeatedly). I remember many occasions my mother in law and my mother having to step in over and over again to help me in ways that, after the fact, I would feel very badly that I didn’t know to do it. Even diaper changing, I had to really be shown the right way to do that, for his little bottom, on repeat. Still, today, at 5 years old, I watch other mothers and think “I’m STILL so confused, why do these things not make sense to me?!”

      Just some rambling thoughts from this ASD mom!

      1. Your comment completely resonated with me! It wasn’t until after my daughter was about a year old that I found out I’m an Aspie.
        She was born with a syndrome and we spent her first weeks of life in the NICU. My husband’s family is huge, and mine is small. We were flooded with his family at the hospital for weeks and I was so overwhelmed! I just wanted everyone to go away! I was waking up around the clock to pump, I was dealing with doctors and nurses, and just hoping our daughter would survive.
        Even before she was born, though, I remember having more than one argument with my husband about family coming to see our new baby. I was adamant that everyone stay away for at least the first 48 hours so we could bond. Before she was born, I didn’t want anyone holding her. My husband said I was being selfish and that his parents only wanted to be supportive. I remember getting this feeling of aggression well-up inside me at the very mention of anyone coming after our baby was born.
        It obviously didn’t turn out as planned. The day our daughter was born, I personally only held her for two seconds before she was whisked away to the ER. I didn’t hold her again for two days.
        When we finally took her home, I was distant and left her in her crib most of the time. I went through the motions, but not the emotions of motherhood. To this day, even though I’m much more attentive, I still feel disconnected. My husband has to suggest things that don’t occur to me, like that she needs a jacket, that she’s got a fever, or the cause of her discomfort. Nothing comes naturally to me. I find myself getting overwhelmed when she cries, which she thankfully hardly did when she was an infant, and sometimes I scream at her to stop. Since she’s been born, I’ve started having meltdowns again, screaming and hitting myself. That’s happened 3 times in the last year.

      2. anonymous aspie: I really related to your post about the disorienting effect of birth and handling newborns. Only recently found out I have ASD, so I’m only just finding some sense in why I found the experience so baffling (my sons are now 8 and 11).

  11. Dear Cynthia,

    I’m a young woman on the asperger spectrum who is worried about the possibility of having a child. Specifically, I’m worried about having a child in a location that may not be conducive to giving myself the best opportunity to be the best mother I can be.

    Here is my background: I was diagnosed with PDD-NOS at the age of three. According to experts my mom consulted when I was young, it was doubtful that I would make it through high school, let alone high school. Two degrees in theatre and music later, I’m very glad to have proved said experts wrong. My natural love of stories and performing and my very determined, caring mother helped me grow far beyond what anybody would have expected. I’ve grown out of my more inconvenient autistic traits, such as sensory overload, actually enjoy social interaction, and have gained a fair amount of emotional intelligence and empathy through the direct teachings of my mom. I’ve also learned to make the most of my more handy autistic traits (e.g. having the ability to focus). Although I’m not a neurotypical, most people wouldn’t know it when they meet me (which is a bit of a double edged sword; lots of neurotypicals, particularly other women, can still sense there’s something different about me, but when they can’t figure out what it is they tend to make assumptions. Such as: I’m unfriendly, not capable of a particular task, simply making excuses, being insincere, etc…people have even gone so far as to ask if I’m from another country!).

    A big part of my personal success is being aware of the shortcomings that stem from my mental wiring and finding ways to compensate for them. I’ve been thinking about motherhood a good deal as I’m approaching age thirty, and what I would need to do/have happen to I choose to go that route.

    I have a lot of worries and concerns, but a big one is WHERE I have and raise a baby. I know that I have a better chance of succeeding when I am directly taught something and I don’t expect handling and coping with an infant to be any different. And I agree that autistic mothers in particular should have support networks to have them cope. Thankfully I have potential support in the town I live in now and both my family and my husband’s family both live within four hours of us.

    Now here is the problem: my husband is looking for a new job and a company that he’s worked with in the past has expressed an interest in re-hiring him for a better position. This is great, but that job is across the country from both sides of our family and most of the people we know. Really, save for some of the people he works with, we won’t know anyone. And I’ve never been the best at making close friends; it’s rare and takes a while for me. My husband (who also falls on the spectrum himself, but was never officially diagnosed) is even more limited in this area.

    I’m worried that if we want a child and we’re living on the east coast away from the loved ones we have, we may not be able to get the support we need for us to parent our baby properly. I’m scared of how much I may disappoint my husband if he decides he wants a kid and I tell him “no” if I don’t feel we can handle it. And I’m scared of kidding ourselves and trying when we DON’T have adequate support, and wrecking our marriage as a result (I’m very much in love with my husband, but I’m aware how much children can strain a marriage after having a divorce lawyer father).

    So as one asperger woman to another, what can I do to cultivate the support I need if I do relocate? How can I get a hold of a parenting coach or mentor? What resources can help me prepare for motherhood? How can I get my husband to fully understand my concerns and convey to him how much I need him to try his very best to expand his comfort zone if he wants a kid?

    Any insight at all would be greatly appreciated.

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