Continued from Part 1
There was joy in that realization and also sadness. My diagnosis came too late to help me in my role as a mother when my daughter was young, a role that I often struggled with. Many aspects of being autistic can make the child-rearing years of motherhood challenging.
Babies have round-the-clock needs. They’re stressful, messy, unpredictable and demanding. Basically they are everything that an autistic person finds hard to cope with. Gone was my precious alone time. Gone were my carefully crafted routines. Even my body was no longer my own, transformed first by pregnancy then by postpartum hormones and breastfeeding.
I was completely unprepared for how hard motherhood would be. Unaware that I was autistic, I often felt like a bad mom. What kind of mother breaks down sobbing uncontrollably and bangs her head against the dining room wall? Certainly none that I was aware of at the time.
Perhaps knowing why I was having so many meltdowns–or even having a proper word for the those scary sobbing, headbanging episodes–would have made the early days of motherhood easier. Perhaps knowing that I have a social communication impairment would have pushed me to understand why it’s important for a mother to frequently say “I love you” to her child.
When I told my daughter Jess about my early suspicions that I might be an aspie, initially she found it hard to believe. As we talked more, she slowly came around, at first agreeing with the traits I put forward, then beginning to offer up other aspects of me that fit the female ASD profile I’d shared with her.
Since then, we’ve talked about what my ASD means, how it’s impacted her as my daughter, and how it influences our interactions. We’ve also agreed that it isn’t all bad. Far from it.
I wasn’t a traditional mom, but I think I managed to not mess up the important stuff. We had rules and routines, though sometimes too many. We played together and read together and watched The Sound of Music every time it ran on TV. We raised a dog and loved her and cried together when she died. I taught her to cook and to drive and told her it was okay to do her Algebra homework in a way that made sense to her, no matter what her teacher told her.
But when it came to girl stuff, I was mostly clueless. Sure it was easy at first: dresses and pigtails, dolls and tea parties. Toy stores make it obvious which toys are the “girl” toys. As she got older, I tried to interest her in the things I’d enjoyed as a kid but Jess had little interest in Legos, was easily bored by the detailed instructions I so loved following. She liked baking and playing video games. She liked to paint and do craft projects, creating art from anything she could get her hands on.
Words and watercolors and scraps of yarn kept her busy for hours while I looked on in puzzlement. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body and a blank canvas sends a shiver of fear down my spine. It was fascinating to watch as my daughter grew into a young woman who was both very much like me and a completely independent person.
She picked out her own clothes, chose her own hairstyles, took up the guitar and developed a love of poetry. I don’t know where she learned about makeup and nail polish and which shoes go with what skirt or how to match jewelry to an outfit. It wasn’t from me. In fact, I’m the one who asks her for fashion advice. She’s remarkably good at it and remarkably girly and that makes me smile.
Still, I look at her and see so much of myself. She has my passion for what she believes in. She has my directness and honesty, my attachment to the truth. She definitely has my sense of humor, one that few others get. She has my practicality and frugalness, my drive for perfection and my tenacity. She has my independent spirit, secure in who she is in ways that I wasn’t at her age.
Never once has she hinted that I wasn’t a good mother. She sees the best in me and always has.
I’m not sure who or what is responsible for that, but I’d like to think her dad and I are, at least partially. I’d like to think that even without the benefit of a diagnosis, I managed to do that most important of things–raising a child–well enough.
Increasingly I’m making my peace with not seeing myself in traditional role models. I’ve always known that I wasn’t a typical female. My presentation is atypical–from the way I dress to my crew cut–but so are my interests.
Again and again I’ve found myself in male-dominated environments. The Economics department where I did my undergraduate degree. The martial arts schools where I earned a black belt and later taught. The shooting range where I learned the finer points of target shooting.
Autism is often framed as a male condition. The original diagnostic criteria were primarily based on studies of boys. The diagnostic rate is many times higher for males than for females. There is even a theory suggesting that autistic women are “more male” based on thinking styles. The psychologist who diagnosed me, noting my presentation and interests, suggested I look into the extreme male brain theory to see if it was a good fit.
Does ASD predispose women toward typically masculine traits? Would I find economics or sparring or target shooting as interesting if I wasn’t autistic? What about shopping or fashion? Does being autistic prevent me from liking typically feminine interests?
Those questions are impossible to answer.
However, I can look around at the other autistic women I know for clues. Some of them are interested in traditionally male pursuits like martial arts and fencing and gaming. Some are interested in more traditionally female pastimes like baking and knitting. Some are scientists and mathematicians, historically male-dominated roles. Others are teachers or social workers, traditionally nurturing professions. Few have a love of fashion or shopping, but some enjoy it quite a lot.
Ultimately, we are individuals, influenced by being autistic, influenced by being female, but in the end still individuals.
Perhaps rather than extreme male brains, autistic women have extreme individual brains. As a group we seem to be less influenced than typical women by the roles society expects us to play.
As a child, I had little concept of gender roles. I liked what I liked, regardless of how socially appropriate my interests were. I played with Barbies and Legos, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, Little People, Weebles, Spirograph, Fashion Plates, Hot Wheels, and board games. My Barbies rode around in the mobile home, past my model train set and my slot car race track. No one told me there were boys’ toys and girls’ toys.
In fifth grade, a friend asked what I wanted for my birthday. When I said Legos, she said I needed to grow up because soon I would be “changing” and wouldn’t like “things like that” anymore. I felt like she knew something I didn’t. That scared me but I was undeterred.
I liked Legos. I also liked M*A*S*H and collecting coins and shooting hoops. I liked sewing and making pottery. I had a punching bag hanging from a chain in the basement and a well-worn baseball mitt. I liked romance novels and horror novels, Nancy Drew and logic puzzles. I hung photos of rock stars in my high school locker the went home and pretended I was an outlaw as I shot cans off a stump in the backyard with my BB gun.
My interests were both typical and atypical for a girl my age. Sometimes this bothered me, like when my friend ominously (and incorrectly) predicted I’d lose interest in Legos. Most of the time, though, I did what I liked regardless of what others thought. At some point, I guess I just resigned myself to being seen as the geeky girl.
Like many autistic kids, I also missed a lot of the social byplay that happened among my peers. If I was supposed to be modeling myself primarily on my female friends, I never got that message. I modeled myself on people that I liked and admired. Sometimes those people were female and sometimes they were male.
I picked up interests based on how interesting they were, regardless of whether they were socially acceptable for girls or even for kids. At nine, I was the only child in a sewing class for adults. Apparently there were no sewing classes for children so my parents found an adult class that would have me. Off I went each week, with my sewing kit and a wooden block that raised my sewing machine pedal a foot off the ground so my foot could reach it.
It never occurred to me that this was unusual. My extreme individual brain likes what it likes. It always has.