A Mother's Take on the Strengths and Challenges of Autism

Photo Credit - Bonnie Kittle

Photo Credit - Bonnie Kittle

My son is autistic.  He is 11 years old and has only recently been diagnosed.  He was an easy baby, happy, content and loving.  Incredibly bright, he was a very early talker and by two years old I could hold a full conversation with him.

As a toddler, he really made parenting look easy and I thought I was winning at motherhood!

When he started pre-school, two months before his third birthday, he seemed to change. He became slightly more difficult to manage and he started to always have an answer for everything, something that hasn't changed to this day!  I put it down to growing up, becoming a 'threenager' which is far trickier than a terrible two year old. He also went from playing with a small selection of little girls that were my friends children to socialising with boys.  So of course I had lots of answers to explain away what I considered small changes to his behaviour.  

In hindsight, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, there were some traits of ASD, but very few. While he was, and still is obsessive about his latest craze (when he was little it was Thomas the Tank Engine, now it is gaming) he is and always has been the most affectionate child. He is incredibly empathetic and at times insightful.

The school first raised concerns of ASD when he was nearly 5 years old.  At the time he was presenting as disruptive in class and not being able to maintain his attention. As parents, we were devastated and instead of waiting for months to see a professional, we paid to see a child psychologist.

After some observations and cognitive testing, the psychologist felt that although he had traits, there was not enough for a diagnosis and the psychologist felt that his behaviour was down to being incredibly bright,

(his IQ measured in the top 10% of the population),

and being immature and one of the youngest in the school year.

Fast forward a few years and although we felt he was a little “quirky” he was getting on well at school and had a good circle of friends.

However when he reached the fifth year and the age of 9 things started to go horribly wrong at school.  He wasn't managing his friendships, having emotional outbursts and this was impacting on his schoolwork.

A month after the new school year started, I sat in a meeting with his class teacher and the SENCO, questioning whether I should get him referred to assessment for ASD. The SENCO immediately and with apparent relief agreed that this would be a good idea.

And so the process began, the paediatrician immediately felt that yes, our son was indeed autistic, although an ADOS test would be needed to confirm this. At this time, he was also diagnosed with Dyspraxia.

With my son, I struggle to define what is autism, what is his character and what is a little boy on the cusp of adolescence. Coming from a family of girls, my experience of boys is limited and I am ashamed to say I have a much easier relationship with my little girl.  So when I think about my son's strengths, I relate these just to him and not all children with autism.

My son is such an inherently kind little boy, he has a huge sense of justice and compassion.  

While he sometimes struggles with jokes, (taking things quite literally) and sarcasm, he is rather witty. An example of this was when he caught me looking at him and asked me why. I replied that I was admiring my work of art, “More like a messy finger painting mummy!” was his response.

The level of his intelligence and his memory is quite remarkable, he can recall moments in great detail from when he was two years old.

He is loyal and he is protective of the people he loves and he cares deeply, in fact a little too deeply for my liking because he is easily hurt.

If he is interested in something, he will very quickly become an expert.

his has not served him well at primary school where the learning is far more generalised but as he goes through the education system and starts to chose the subjects he can specialise in I am sure that he will come into his own.  I am convinced he will find his niche and become wildly successful.. or maybe that is my mummy pride speaking.

To me, my son feels extremely vulnerable, maybe it is because he is my firstborn or maybe my maternal instinct has got it right, but I am far more protective of him than his little sister. I struggle to let go, on the cusp of starting secondary school, this will be inevitable and this fills me with anxiety.

One of my biggest fears is that he will be bullied, his self esteem is low already so he is the perfect candidate for a bully.

He can be extremely silly and immature and I envision detentions aplenty at secondary school.  This of course isn't helped by being big for his age and having a loud and deep voice... it has been his downfall throughout primary school, he has always been noticed.

My husband is desperate for our son to 'blend in' when he starts secondary school and we will do all we can to make this happen, making sure that he is clean, smells nice and has all the right clothes, bags and trainers.  This may sound odd, but as his personal hygiene is an issue, something we work hard to overcome, this is a huge concern.  An educational psychologist recommended a book for ASD children on hygiene, my son was not amused.

The biggest challenge I face is his emotional outbursts and his inability to self regulate.  And as is mother, I am of course his 'safe space'.  This means that if he has managed to hold himself together during the school day, I am the one that suffers at school pick up. Imagine a bottle of soda, being shaken througout the day. That is my son, everytime he struggles, that bottle gets shaken some more.  Now imagine the top of the soda bottle is removed when he comes out of school and sees me. Woosh! Soda everywhere! That frothing explosion is my son's emotions, and by the time we are home I'm a nervous wreck and often close to tears.

I have to remember that it is not personal, that I just need to ride it out and not argue back, afterall, I am the adult.  Sometimes that is easier said than done, depending on my frame of mind at the time.

My son can be very manipulative, and as his diagnosis is relatively recent, he is still 'trying it on for size'.  

He has often tried to use his diagnosis as an excuse for his behaviour and a reason for struggling or getting out of something.  This was seen as such a heinous act at his primary school, something for us to be ashamed of.  However, when we admitted he did this to the SENCO at his new school, he smiled and said that of course he did, that is afterall normal human behaviour.  Which of course it is, I know I have been guilty of using either asthma or anxiety to get out of something I didn't want to do.

For me, whether his individual behaviours are down to autism or whether it is merely a characteristic that he has inherited from his rather hot headed parents,

I absolutely wouldn't change him for the world.  The only thing that I wish for is that his life isn't a constant struggle and above all he is happy and loved.

As with all parents, we learn so much as our children grow. We learn about our strengths and weaknesses and we learn about our capabilities.  We also learn how to love unconditionally.  This is heightened when your child is diagnosed with a disability / different ability.

I have learned about what I am capable of, I have discovered strength and I have learned that love really does know no bounds.  I have also learned that it is okay to stand up for your child even if this means that people see you as difficult and like you a little bit less.

I am, and always will be an advocate for both of my children, sometimes that can feel overwhelming but that is motherhood and I wouldn't change it for the world.

Sharon blogs about the ins and outs of living with anxiety and depression; plus the tales of motherhood to her 11-year-old autistic son and her 7-year-old daughter. You can find out more about Sharon’s blog Prozac and Prosecco here.