Autism Women's Network

Motherhood: Autistic Parenting

If you Google “autism” and “mother,” you’ll find hundreds of references to mothers of autistic children for every mention of mothers who are autistic. It would be easy to assume–as perhaps many people have for a long time–that autistic mothers simply don’t exist. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that not only do we exist, we have a unique experience of what it means to be a parent.

While there is no single definitive model of autistic motherhood, many of us share similar experiences. This 3-part series will look at what it’s like to be a mom on the spectrum–the challenges and the strengths–as well as what kind of supports autistic parents say they would benefit from.

As someone who was undiagnosed when my daughter was young, I wasn’t surprised to hear again and again from other autistic moms how beneficial an earlier diagnosis would have been. Denise, who was diagnosed after the birth of some of her children but before the birth of others, explains, “I believe I have been a better parent with my younger children due to having a diagnosis and understanding my communication challenges,” she says. “Whereas, with my oldest children, I was unaware and it did impact my parenting.”

For many autistic women, being an undiagnosed adult caring for a baby or toddler was confusing and frustrating. We knew that parenting would be challenging, but a lot of us sensed that we were facing challenges that other moms didn’t seem to have.

Erika, who has four daughters, recalls how difficult those early years were. “I had no social network and very little support at home. Having a diagnosis or even knowing I was autistic might have saved my marriage and some of my social relationships, which would have greatly benefited my kids.” Many of the women who shared their stories for this article echoed Erika’s frustrations.

Often the demands of motherhood combined with postpartum depression heightened the sense that something was “wrong.” Some, like Puddy, knew that their adjustment to parenting was especially hard. After experiencing unmanageable meltdowns, continual sensory overload and postpartum depression with her second child, who suffered from reflux for the first year, she says, “At the time I didn’t know I was on the spectrum and just thought I was going crazy.” Looking back, she believes that being on the spectrum and not knowing it contributed to her postpartum depression as well.

The first few months of motherhood were just as challenging for me and I had similar doubts about my ability to cope with the day-to-day demands. I was lucky to have a supportive husband who could step in when I needed a break but many autistic moms aren’t as fortunate. Knowing that I was on the spectrum, and more importantly what that meant in terms of sensory sensitivities, emotional regulation and managing stress, would have been a tremendous help.

Raising Social Children

One of the traditional tasks of motherhood is the socialization of our children. When you don’t understand social rules to begin with, this can be a daunting proposition. E. Smith, whose son is now six, recounts how frustrating those early years were: “As a young mom I felt really alienated, because I didn’t feel up to chatting up other moms at the park, and even when I did, they regarded me as some kind of freak because motherhood seemed like so many unmanageable chores to me.”

Whether we have a diagnosis or not, it quickly becomes obvious that we’re not like the other moms. Everything from arranging playdates for our toddlers to communicating with our children’s teachers can prove daunting. When asked about helpful supports, Amanda says she wishes that she’d had someone to liaison with her children’s schools. Now a grandmother of four, she recalls that “the school thought I was some sort of crazy lazy wild mum . . . raising 4 kids to 3 different dads.” Additionally, she felt that she “never fit in with the other mums . . . and this added to my depression.”

Sophie points out how a parent’s lack of social skills can have a ripple effect on her children. Citing her own difficulty with befriending other parents and teachers, as well the loneliness of her early years of motherhood, she adds, “It’s been hard to teach the kids things we ourselves are no good at.” Several parents said that some form of coaching, advice or instruction on social skills for the family would be beneficial, especially in the preschool and elementary school years.

Nearly every woman who shared her story for this article felt that she was a good parent and yet most said they experienced alienation, guilt, depression, loneliness or inadequacy when comparing themselves with ‘other moms.’ As Kmarie put it, “I have a huge support system that makes up for my deficits but I also maximize my gifts. I love parenting on most days but  . . . I also feel guilty every night because I am so different from other moms . .  even if I offer more.”

Easing the Social Challenges of Motherhood

Being a mom is an inherently social activity. When our children our young, we interact with them all day, every day. We meet other parents at play groups, school activities and sporting events. As our children’s representatives and guardians, we have to effectively communicate with teachers, doctors and countless other professionals. All of these roles are essential to childrearing and all can be adversely affected by social communication difficulties.

Yet, there is a distinct lack of services for autistic parents. Some parents are able to take advantage of parenting programs offered to young, first time or disadvantaged parents. For example, Jen, a single mom to a thirteen-year-old boy, recalls how her local social services agency arranged for her to receive home visits and attend a playgroup as well as go to a weekly family support group. All of this contributed to increased social interaction for her and her young son. “The main thing I learned from these activities,” she says, “was that I was a better parent than average and just how much I needed a break.”

While this kind of program is valuable, autistic parents have needs beyond that of the parents who are the targets for typical parenting classes or support programs. Specifically, autistic moms say they would benefit from the following social supports:

    1. Interaction with other autistic mothers for social support and validation. Because being a mom on the spectrum is a unique experience, having other autistic moms to turn to is essential. Jana, whose own mother is on the spectrum, says she’s received a lot of valuable advice about coping with two young children while pregnant with a third. Seemingly simple things like intentionally using the children’s nap times to personally recharge and the importance of structure in daily life can be critical for autistic moms with young children. Who is more aware of this than autistic women who have been new moms themselves?
    2. Parenting coaching or mentorship. In addition to a social network of other autistic moms, some women felt they would have benefitted from structured coaching or mentorship. Several participated in parenting programs and found them helpful. Others longed for a role model. Anna, who suspects her mother is also on the spectrum, wishes that she’d had “someone to provide advice and support–to model parenting for me.” Because she grew up without an adequate mothering model, she says, “I didn’t know how to parent my children and what was ‘normal.'” She also expresses the fear of many women who struggle with mental health issues or are perceived as “weird” by society–that to have asked for help with parenting would have resulted in punitive treatment rather than support.
    3. Help with family communication, including parent-child and partner communication. Susan sums up the feelings of many autistic moms when she says, “Had I realized I was autistic, I could have sought out social situations and/or family therapy that would have helped us interact with each other and learn appropriate social skills.” Autistic parents will never be neurotypical in their communication and they don’t need to be. However, we can learn more effective ways of communicating within our families and with outsiders. This can be particularly important in mixed families. My husband and daughter are not autistic and over the past two decades, they’ve essentially been part of a cross-cultural exchange. My daughter translates between neurotypical and autistic communication styles much like any other child raised in a dual-language home.
    4. An advocate to assist in communication with schools, doctors and other professionals. Many of the situations in which mothers are expected to advocate for their children can be intimidating–or simply hard to navigate–for someone on the spectrum. When asked what kind of supports would be helpful, Stephanie replied that she could use help in social situations like parent-teacher conferences or the PTA. “I didn’t know what to expect (and still don’t). I don’t know if I’m doing it right or not.” In addition to all the typical social situations that most moms encounter, many autistic parents also have autistic children, who need strong parent advocates. Assistance in this area would benefit the entire family.

The next part in this series will look at some of the practical challenges of autistic motherhood, including sensory issues, time management, decision making, organization, and running a household.


About the Author: Cynthia Kim is the proud owner of many labels including woman, wife, mother, writer, editor, entrepreneur and most recently, autistic. Diagnosed with Asperger’s in her early forties, she began blogging about life on the spectrum at Musings of an Aspie. She is the author of “I Think I Might Be Autistic: A Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis and Self-Discovery for Adults” and  is a regular contributor to Autism Parenting Magazine. When she’s not writing about all things autism, she indulges her passion for words by running a small publishing company and occasionally dabbling in fiction, which sometimes gets published.

Autism Women's Network

23 thoughts on “Motherhood: Autistic Parenting”

  1. I know its been a while since this was written, but I’ve just come across it now, and have had the exact same experience as A.G. My mom did everything right by the book and was the ‘ideal’ parent but I never felt a real intimacy or connection with my mother. This caused me an enormous amount of anxiety as a child as I always thought it was my fault (that I was somehow unloveable), and obviously also affected my relationships into adulthood. Understanding that my mother is autistic, now that I’m an adult, has helped me to heal from some of my childhood trauma. I now understand that it wasn’t my fault and that is simply how she is. I wish she had been diagnosed (she never has been) as it would have made it easier for her as well as me.

  2. I wanted to add: Thank you for writing this post, Cynthia – I think its super helpful. As you say, there are so many resourcs about parenting autistic children but very little on parenting as an autistic adult. This is helpful for both the parents and their children!

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  4. To A.G. and Sally, sorry you felt your autistic mothers were failures as regards emotional support, but I wanted to assure you this is not necessarily typical of autistic parents. I have Asperger’s (both my children are also autistic) and I have always been very loving and emotionally supportive to them, in fact I would go so far as to say more than the average parent. Don’t forget there are neurotypical parents who could be described similarly to your own mothers and many people with autism have co-morbid conditions, such as anxiety, depression, ADD or ADHD and other conditions which could exacerbate parenting deficits. I just don’t want people getting the wrong impression of autistic and Asperger’s parents from your comments. There are enough dangerous stereotypes and myths out there without people being misled, however unintentionally.

    I have 3 Aspie friends who are parents, all of us hug our children and provide not only emotional support but practical support too.

    1. I agree with you! I am a mum with aspergers and my son has autism! I read articles about aspie parents being cold etc and I’m nothing like that! But when it comes to school workshops and coffee and chats etc I am the first to avoid unless it’s important for my son,then I make myself go!lol!

  5. “If you are like this (not saying this is common) do not have kids!”

    I think is unfair advice, even to the Asperger’s parent who does not know how to connect emotionally, there can be help and support and as you said, you also had other family members and friends who did provide that support. Your mother was not diagnosed, was not allowed therefore any support or insight into her condition. More females are being diagnosed these days, although tragically still not enough because the diagnostic criteria were based entirely on males.

    The NAS has a page on being a child of a parent with autism: http://www.autism.org.uk/living-with-autism/parents-relatives-and-carers/sons-and-daughters.aspx

    There are all sorts of parents out there, Asperger’s and autistic parents don’t automatically make bad ones.

  6. Some feedback from my Asperger’s parent friends (all their children are also autistic incidentally):

    Friend A (Aspie dad to two)
    “I love hugging my children. I used to hug X to sleep every night. He doesn’t want hugs anymore” and “Y allows me to hug him.”

    “I used to get into trouble with [NT wife] for telling X in public “I love you”. She said that wasn’t appropriate.”

    “Doesn’t this sound like the “refridgerator mothers” theory of autism?” (in reference to the claim that an undemonstrative autistic parent causes problems for the child)

    Friend B (Aspie mum to two)
    “I do hug my kids. They don’t always want it mind. One lad def needs to be in the mood for hugs, but he’s more of a sensory seeker. The other needs hugs a lot.

    I listen, but I do find it difficult getting the whole picture.

    I guess my life is supporting my children. My parents were absent for me. My kids know that I’m here for them.

    As far as empathy is concerned I probably over empathize.”

    Friend C (Aspie mum to one)
    “As you know I made a point of bringing X up as a neurotypical person. I have done all those things but with a conscious effort to do so, as I know that’s the norm. None of it came naturally. Love and affection can be demonstrated in many ways, and I would suggest that actions do speak louder than words. I would also be raising the topic of what an Aspie or Autie can give a child that a neurotypical person can’t!”

    So my final comment on this, is to ask, how many NT parents would dedicate themselves to doing everything “right” as an autistic parent usually does? We tend to take parenting very seriously. There are way worse things to have than an autistic parent! Please, don’t stereotype, make assumptions, or by default blame the autism for any failing an autistic parent might have (they are still individuals with their own personalities and upbringings).

    1. I see a lot of the commenters so far have a chip on their shoulder. I can forgive their ignorance, though. All they know is their own experience, which does not make them experts. What makes these people think that there are any perfect parents in this world? There aren’t. My parents didn’t even know I had autism, because it wasn’t a “thing” when I was a kid. I have forgiven their ignorance. There are plenty of bad parents, most of which probably do not even have autism. Just because someone has a bad childhood, doesn’t mean they should be advising other people about whether or not they should have kids. That’s just ridiculous to me. And kinda cruel…. I learned I have ASD when my kids were going through their diagnostic processes. My sister told me at Christmas that she thinks I should have aborted my children. She doesn’t even spend time with us, much less know us as people, or as a family. I love my sister, I would never say something like that to her, or anyone else, and I can forgive her ignorance of how great things can be, and how much love and happiness we have in our home most days. Yes, the bad days are hard, they suck! Just like any other family, we take the good, we take the bad, we take them both and there you have the facts of life. There are good parents out there with ASD, and whether these people like it or not, there will continue to be.

  7. Good grief! You’d think the “My childhood was ruined by an Autistic parent” crowd would find their own website/blog/forum to moan in, as opposed to freaking out everybody here who IS an autistic parent looking for reassurance and support. That’s a no-brainer, even for an autist like me…

  8. People, I’m really sorry for your childhood and everything, but when you begin to make such acusations, you are being prejudicing. My father was also a autistic person, and an abuser, but as a neurotipical person, you should be able to separate those identities of theirs.
    Being autistic does not mean being abuser. There’s neurotypical bad and good parents a there’s autistic bad and good parents. If “autistic people shouldn’t reproduce” (and this is really nasty of you to say), neurotypical shouldn’t too, they do bad things too! Also, this is not the place to say those things, and I’m autistic, the person who usually don’t know what to not say in certain situations, so it reflects really poorly on you. You should talk about it on a forum for this. Your mother’s brain was wired like this, but it does not mean that everytime there’s an autistic parent they will be bad, did you read the article?
    My friends has neurotypical abuser parents. By your logic, neurotypicals also should never ever reproduce. You can say that it’s diferent, of course, but it’s not. Think about it. It’s lile saying black people shouldn’t reproduce, because they raise thiefa and killers. Get your facts checked, seek for help, but don’t blame the illness. Your mom is awful because she’s awful, a bad parent, and maybe her mom and dad were awful too, so she didn’t know better and didn’t want to.

  9. My mother is autistic. She has brought up two happy children. We have had to deal with the difficulties of our socially awkward childhood. But as children we just dealt with it. She loves us but has difficulties showing it. Having an autistic mother is just one of those things you may have to deal with. But you can manage.

  10. Thank you very much for this article I have a daughter that has severe autism I have depression ADD And processing delay I thought I was crazy I was misdiagnosed as a child that’s for having attention deficit disorder I hyperfocus on everything I thought self medicate myself with coffee diet pills And sometimes I take I am on the waiting list to get help because everything sometimes feels overwhelming I’m so glad I found this article I my daughter was an early intervention they had a caseworker come over every week which was wonderful but when she turned 3 everything went away that structural routines that for me it was so hard to get back on track even now I’m just trying to get back on track and she 7 I had went to her school to see if I can get the same service as I had when she was
    Early intervention to have a caseworker come and help me but I have to do that all on my own getting her to her doctors appointments neurologist appointment’s speech therapy appointments occupational therapy appointments and other various specialty doctors not to mention dealing with her on a physical level which is a lot of work because you have nonverbal overstimulated but I’m working on it I am working on myself but sometimes I feel like I need structure and I’ll help to get my life structured because when I have structure I feel wonderful but if something throws that off everything goes wrong and it takes me a long time to get back on track the only thing I want to do is help my daughter live a productive life and I would’ve known that I would have known that I was autistic I wouldn’t of had children she has it 10 times worse than I do and growing it was really hard for me social emotion have known that I was autistic I wouldn’t of had children she has it 10 times worse than I do and growing it was really hard for me socially and emotionally and find what I’m known this was hereditary I wouldn’t have my daughter I didn’t want that to happen to my child what happened to me I only thought I had a beat I didn’t want that to happen to my child what happened to me I only thought I had ADD but when I was trying to find out what was going on with my daughter and her diagnosis I took 30 or 50 self-diagnosis for autism and every last had said that I had and every last had said that I had is and I know do cry and cry happy tears for knowing what’s wrong with me now and said here’ cry and cry happy tears for knowing what’s wrong with me now and said tears because my daughter has to live it worse than I do I have so many autistic moments of my life it’s ridiculous learning how to talk to people learning how to put myself inside shoes because I talk before I think and then I realize after certain amount of time what I have said and how people would react to it and why people react the way Do for two to what I say not only do I have to deal with having ADD autism and it’s so stressful sometimes I just want to stay in the house and not go anywhere because it’s my comfort zone but I know I have to take my daughter to the park and be a good mother it’s hard to interact with people and it’s hard to interact with my daughter I try my best to interact with her I made a New Year’s resolution to the best brother I could be this year I want her to get better I am sorry if this is the rambling on and on and on thank you for taking the time out to People inside on a real situation of autism and parenting as an autistic mother

  11. Thank you very much for this article. I’ve just recently diagnosed myself as an aspie, which is extremely embarrassing because I’m a 50-something psychologist who specializes in neurodevelopmental disorders, married to another aspie and parent to two mildly to moderately autistic children. What’s even more embarrassing and shocking is that apparently “everyone” knew it about me. I cannot quite find words to express the confusion of this discovery, which also, however, puts my life in the right perspective. Suddenly so much of it makes sense now.

    1. I just love your comment. Nobody is perfect. I’ve spent my life psycho analysing everyone else thinking my struggles were due to my Dad and ex husband who I now realise have ASD after getting my son diagnosed. Then the funny part realising I had it too. Life is very crazy. Maybe I can now feel more settled with my unique, unclear but loving and deeply caring ways. Maybe I can now start feeling ok with myself. Hope you do too!

    2. Thanks for leaving that comment. As a woman with ASD and pursuing my doctorate and licensure to be a psychiatric NP, it makes me feel better to know that another mental health professional on the spectrum has made it work. I usually feel as if it’s a terrible secret that I must hide from everyone.

      As a mother with ASD, this article was extremely helpful, as well. It’s hard to find information (let alone support) on the topic.

      For those who make negative comments to and about parents on the spectrum: no problem has ever been improved for any group of people when they can’t risk self-identifying or speaking openly about the issues of concern because of fear- which results from distrust and attacks from the majority group. Pushing people down doesn’t help anyone get the help they might benefit from.

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  13. Do you know of any resources that can help an Autistic mother? I just discovered last year that I have Asbergers and even knowing this is not helping. I feel like a horrid mother and I was hoping to find some sources for help…(information). One of the biggest challenges that I am having is that my oldest (age 3) is also most likely on the spectrum (according to her doctor). We have communication clashes all the time and parenting her is very overwhelming. I struggle with the noises that she makes, the way she comes so close to me and how she touches me. I also struggle with my second because she wants to be held all the time, but holding is really hard for me (she is 10m.) I know I sound like a horrid mother. I wish I could meet their emotional needs, but I don’t understand them or I cannot figure out how to that doesn’t make me feel sick/hurt. I was just wondering. Thanks for your time. Sorry to bother.

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