It was a challenging one to write. My original thought was “I’ll write about the decision to have or not have children as an autistic woman.” Which turns out to be an incredibly personal and complex topic. You’d think I would have seen that coming, right?
Ultimately, what I concluded, is that each woman’s choice when it comes to parenthood is the best choice for her and each person’s situation is unique. There is no “decision” in the broad conceptual sense, just many individual decisions made for countless reasons and sometimes not for any particular reason at all. I hope that comes across in the article, because I very much want it to be respectful of our choices and of the circumstances that are unique to parenting as a disabled person.
A Postscript to the Series
There’s also something that I wanted to address at some point in this series–something that’s been on mind for months as I’ve been writing about motherhood–but I never found a way to say that I felt comfortable with. Since I’m among friends here, I’m going to just throw it out there as food for thought and hope for the best. Continue reading Honoring Our Choices→
This is the third in a series of posts about being a mom with Asperger’s.
As difficult as I found being the mom of a newborn, I really enjoyed being the mom of a toddler. Suddenly this demanding little creature was starting to walk and talk and explore the world around her. She was still demanding and unpredictable and messy, but she was also lots of fun.
Aspies are blessed with a childlike sense of wonder and innocence that never really goes away. Discovering the world all over again alongside your child is an incredible experience. And when your little boy or girl develops a fascination with butterflies or dump trucks, you can put your aspie tendencies to work: visits to the library, field trips to construction sites, collecting things!
As an aspie, you’ve already mastered one of the keys to parenting a toddler: routine. I’m betting you’ll find nothing wrong with reading Goodnight Moon every night before bed, six weeks running. If your toddler insists on watching the same episode of Blue’s Clues three times in a row, you’re not gonna be the mom who tells him how great it would be to watch something new once in awhile. Your son has to have one special toy with him everywhere he goes or your daughter wants to wear the same sundress every day of the summer? Makes perfect sense to me.
When your two year old starts asking “why?” in response to everything, your natural aspie response will be to explain why the wind blows or why dogs bark. Your toddler will not only end up with vast amounts of esoteric knowledge, but she’ll learn that asking “why?” is a good thing.
Socializing Your Toddler (and maybe yourself)
On the downside, much of your toddler’s social life may depend on your own ability to socialize. Toddlers meet and play with other toddlers at playgroups, the park, and other “mom & me” events. If your inclination is to avoid social situations, you may find the neighborhood “mom & me” playgroup unappealing. I certainly did. But I also knew that my daughter needed to play with other toddlers. She wasn’t in daycare, so until she was old enough for preschool, it was up to me to make that happen.
So off we went to learn how to finger paint and make macaroni necklaces.
The funny thing about these playgroups is that the moms are there as much to make friends for themselves as they are to socialize their children. This can be a great way for you to make friends around a shared interest (your toddlers!) but it’s not required. If the idea of spending a few hours at someone’s house while your kids play makes you uncomfortable, it’s fine to say thank you but you’re rather busy outside of playgroup.
I accepted exactly one play date invitation from another mom. It wasn’t a disaster, exactly, but it was a classic case of ‘wrong planet’ syndrome. The other mom and I had little in common and I didn’t have the social skills to bridge the gap. Looking back, I realize that we could have spent the hour talking about our toddlers. Faced with this situation now, I would have used the drive to her house thinking up suitable small talk questions. I also know now that “yes” and “no” are conversation killers, even when they’re accurate answers. When she asked me if I liked the playgroup, she didn’t want a literal answer, she was trying to elicit information to continue the conversation. A more suitable answer would have been something like, “Jess really enjoys storytime. Which activities does Peter like best?”
Jess had a great time playing with her new friend and I toughed it out for her, but that was the first and last playdate that required my attendance. Because I wasn’t armed with even the rudimentary social skills that I’ve since developed, I struggled to connect with someone who was reaching out to me and missed the chance at making a friend. Instead I came away thinking that there was something wrong with me and decided that it would be safer to decline future playdates rather than suffer through the kind of self-doubt I felt for days afterward.
Looking back on times like this, it’s easy to regret not knowing about my AS. It’s easy to say that it would all have been different if only I’d known this or done that. But I’m not sure it would have been that different. Today, if I was the mom of a toddler and another mom asked us on a playdate, I might be more likely to accept than I was twenty years ago, but I don’t think I’d necessarily enjoy it the same way a typical mom would. And I’m okay with that now.
Out Into the World
As your child enters the preschool and early elementary school years, she’ll be old enough to go on playdates by herself. You may find this to be a great relief. I certainly did. Jess was good at making friends. Seeing her develop her own social network was exciting.
I’d never been good at making friends, but she seemed to have some sort of magic natural instinct for socializing. Maybe that’s just her personality or maybe she was compensating for my deficits. While the other kindergartners’ moms were arranging playdates for their kids, Jess was pretty much on her own. If she didn’t go out and find some kids to invite over after school, she wasn’t going to have much of a social life. But she quickly made friends and that paved the way for the years ahead.
And with friends came all sorts of new questions. There’s a lot of unfiltered knowledge floating around out there on school buses and playgrounds. As an aspie, you may be less shocked than the average mom by some of the questions your youngster comes home with. You also may be able to answer a lot of them without having to use your Google-fu.
As a result, your child will not only feel comfortable coming to you with questions, but you may find that your natural tendency toward bluntness combined with a higher than average level of emotional detachment actually creates a very open relationship. This tends to result in your child being willing to ask you anything or tell you everything. By the time she gets to high school, you’ll realize that in some cases, 90% of everything is more than enough.
This is the first in a series about being a mom with Asperger’s Syndrome–a combination of reflections on how Asperger’s affected my parenting experience and advice that I wish someone has given me as I was struggled to make sense of being an unconventional mom. Hopefully some of what I learned along the way will be useful to other moms (or dads) with Asperger’s.
If you’re the mother of a child with Asperger’s syndrome, you can find parenting advice to help you navigate every stage of your child’s life.
If you’re a mother with Asperger’s syndrome? Well, good luck with that.
By the time I discovered that I have Asperger’s, I was already the mother of an adult daughter–a fairly well-adjusted, successful adult daughter. Ha! I thought smugly. I might be defective but I’d raised a perfectly normal child.*
When I told my daughter Jess that I have Asperger’s, she laughed it off at first, like maybe I just needed to be talked out of this crazy idea that there was something wrong with me. I’d always been different from other moms. We both knew that. But the idea that I might be autistic was, understandably, a lot to process.
As I explained more about what AS is and described some of the common aspie traits, she started coming up with specific examples of times when I’d done something particularly autistic. Some were funny, others less so.
The more we talked about it, the more relieved she sounded. An AS diagnosis can explain a lot of puzzling behavior, for both the aspie and the people closest to her.
As one point in the conversation, she said, “But you’re so smart!”
Armed with the reading I’d done, I explained the gap between intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence that a lot of us with AS experience.
She was quiet for a moment. I’m sure that among other things she was puzzled over why I was so excited to be telling her that I have a developmental disorder. It doesn’t sound like a cause for celebration, but I was still in the early flush of discovery. Suddenly so much of my life made sense. I felt like someone had finally given me the user’s manual to my brain.
I hadn’t yet realized how little I knew about AS or myself. I hadn’t yet realized that the owner’s manual was missing a few key pages.
The next question Jess asked made that clear. “So, wait, does that mean you don’t have feelings?”
When a stranger or acquaintance asks this, it’s easy to attribute it to ignorance. One of the most common misconceptions about people with AS is that they’re cold and emotionless. But when your own child asks you if you have feelings, well, that’s one of those times when the reality of AS hits and hits hard.
That’s when twenty-four years of not saying “I love you”–twenty-four years of struggling to express my feelings to my own child–crystallized into one perfect moment of regret, of wishing I’d known all along that there was a reason for how difficult I find it to express what I’m feeling. Because the feelings are there. They may not be quite what the typical mom feels, but I’m absolutely certain that I love my daughter. And I want her to be absolutely certain too.
*While I would phrase this differently now (substituting different words for “normal” and “defective”) I chose not to revise my original thoughts because they reflect how I honestly felt in those early moments, when I was still learning about Asperger’s Syndrome.