My son, Ben, is 11 and my approach to his disability has changed a lot since he was little. I knew very little about disabled people when he was born and my experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done things differently and I would have found it helpful to have read stories of other parents with similar experiences.
This is my latest interview with a parent who is raising a child who is not typical. This week it is with Caro, who is one of the friendliest people I’ve met on the internet.
Can you describe your family?
There is me, my husband, and our children: a boy of 17, a daughter of 15, and my youngest son is 11. My daughter is autistic and has Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA).
If you met her, depending on what your benchmark of neurotypical is, you might notice she’s different but she’s quite hard to spot. Behind that facade is an absolute ocean of anxiety. My daughter also has Obsessive Compulsive Condition (OCC, or OCD – whichever is your preference) which is part of the pathological demand avoidance. So whilst her brain is telling her, ‘You’ve got to be in control, you can’t do what this person is asking you to do’, the OCC kicks in and she will say, ‘I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do it my way’. They just fight each other all time and it makes life very debilitating.
Women and autism don’t have the greatest history. For every female diagnosed as autistic there are three males which means that a lot of women are being missed. Women present very differently and the current questionnaire, the system of how we diagnose autism, is based on male research.
Lack of understanding means that when I explain even to the most learned of healthcare professionals my daughter is autistic and has PDA, I’ll get a little head bob, and ‘I’m so sorry’. It really annoys me because that’s not helping anyone – her or the path that lies ahead for others. We need to change that whole conversation.
Was there a moment when you noticed your daughter was doing things differently to your older child?
She didn’t walk until quite late but I wasn’t overly worried. She was doing this thing as a toddler where she would turn my face to speak to her. I had previously looked after a little boy who’s deaf so I thought she had hearing difficulties. We took her to see a doctor and he said she has really bad glue ear but it will clear. When she started at nursery she was speaking and walking but she wasn’t socialising the way my son had. I went to see another paediatrician who wasn’t that worried and at the bottom of the note that he sent to my GP, it said ‘Mother worried’.
I’ve got a lot of ‘Mother concerned’ notes and it wasn’t until she was in year two that somebody started to take it seriously. By then she was on her third school. We had a terrible situation where she was being treated terribly by one of the members of staff in a verbally abusive way. My daughter had been told she was stupid, he would rip work up in front of her. He sent her down from year one to reception class. We removed her straightaway but I think that had lasting effects on her.
She was diagnosed with audio processing issues when she was seven but we started seeing more people privately because the waiting lists to get a further diagnosis were years long. When she was nearly nine she got the diagnosis of autism, and a year later, a diagnosis of pathological demand avoidance. By then her issues with executive function were obvious. She was still in a mainstream school and masking a lot, so a lot of what we were being told wasn’t really fitting with her behaviour at home.
At one stage as a family we didn’t go out socially for about a year, not because we were embarrassed about her behaviour, but because it was so upsetting and difficult for her. We would parent the children almost separately, so my husband would sometimes take the boys and I would take my daughter. I think that was an error – I think siblings should be exposed to it all – but at the time we felt it was a lot for us and for them. My husband played sport for a living and therefore he worked at weekends so I was on my own a lot with all three.
How do you approach language around autism?
I listen to autistic people saying, ‘This is how I want to be addressed,’ and I use that language in my family. I’ve always felt that communication is the key. Where you don’t have information there is a void, and people can fill it with anything they want. There is no embarrassment to any of my daughter’s diagnoses.
How do you judge how much to share about your daughter?
I don’t want to give too much of her away, because I think she deserves her own social media footprint. I think we want to make sure that we maintain a level of respect for the person that we’re raising, because I would hate for my daughter to read or see something upsetting. But I felt very lonely for a very long time, because there were no other parents at her original schools that were in a similar position, and it felt very isolating to me. When I started sharing on social media, people said, ‘Me too’, and it felt less lonely. It’s a difficult line and I often sit back and take a break, but there are phenomenal support groups on social media.
I realised, probably a bit late, that I was putting her face up and then rethought. I definitely was guilty of saying, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ a few years ago. What I didn’t do enough was sit and listen, because my daughter isn’t the first autistic person to be born and she won’t be the last. I’m listening to autistic people because I can talk about my learned experience as a parent or carer, but I can’t speak about what it’s like to be autistic. Most of the information that we have has been from healthcare professionals that are neither autistic nor raising those that are.
How has your approach to your daughter’s autism, or parenting, changed over the years?
My daughter had a lot of behavioural issues when we were out when she was younger (which makes perfect sense now) and my eldest son found that exceptionally challenging. I was saying, ‘You go and play with your friends, everything is fine.’ I didn’t really know what I was dealing with and didn’t feel supported, even though I’d read every available book and seen countless doctors. Actually what I was lacking was self-confidence. When I read your book, I saw you got your confidence early and I envy that.
Anyone that’s ever been into a meeting with their Local Authority will know it’s probably one of the most terrifying things you’ll ever do. I remember sitting in a meeting about her, listening, and when I walked out I said to my husband, ‘They’re all completely wrong about her. I’m never going to go into another meeting so ill prepared again.’ The next year I spent weeks preparing for the meeting and handed a booklet of papers out to everyone. I said, ‘I’m really uncomfortable with the language that you’re using.’ I corrected things that were wrong. It’s not about dismissing what professionals are telling you, it’s that not everything will apply to you and it’s about getting the confidence to pick and choose what will help your child and your family. I think that starts with looking on social media or reading a book or finding people in similar situations.
My husband, Will, is the most incredible support. I’m the primary carer and I struggled with not earning money for a long time. I didn’t want to be a burden but I undervalued what I was doing because caring isn’t valued by society. When I’ve sat through those hideous meetings thinking I can’t do this, he’s there saying, ‘You absolutely can.’
My husband and I are very different. I am over communicative, he under communicates. We are polar opposites in lots of ways, but our life goals and the way we raise children has been in sync. I do think there is luck involved. My family are really important support to us – especially my mum.
I get messages from people saying their family members have criticised how they parent their autistic child, how they should be firmer. How can people not see how unhelpful and damaging that can be? I remember someone very early on into our daughter’s diagnosis a friend sending me a link to an article about how to cure autism. It’s what’s called ‘soles of your feet’ behaviours – things that you can’t see that you do, that you forget are there, but they’re part of you. If people that love my daughter will say or send things like that, then heavens only knows how we’re ever going to make the path less challenging for her and people like her.
No child comes with a book of instructions. I spent far too long looking back and thinking we should have done things differently. I think that would be the advice I would give myself now: you’re doing the best you can at the time. I think we made terrible errors with my daughter when we didn’t know what was going on, where I was telling her off for doing something she had no control over. I didn’t know what else to do at the time.
Do you think there are things that you’ve learnt through parenting your daughter that have changed the way you are with your other children?
Yes, definitely. There are loads of things that my daughter has taught me that has made me a better mum. I’m much more patient. I now always listen first, there is absolutely nothing off limits. I think I would have been far more staid had it not been for her and the way that she is. I have seen now that behaviour is communication so rather than reacting straightaway, I’ll ask, ‘What’s going on?’ My daughter taught me that trying to fix things is no good when the situation is full of anxiety, noise and stress.
How has parenting changed you over the time that you’ve been doing it?
I think I am a much better person. I used to look back and regret a lot. This is not how I thought my life would be – not being negative, it just isn’t what I expected. I am now more than okay with that. It’s absolutely wonderful.
I think as carers we sit on a tightrope between our children and people that aren’t like our children, and we want society to meet a little bit in the middle. I want people to understand that it can be difficult, like any parenting, but there are so many incredible parts. I’m trying to listen to autistic people whilst caring for someone that is autistic, whilst not being autistic myself.
I wouldn’t change my child, not for me, but I’d take away some of her anxiety and her challenges if I could. My daughter has changed us all and she is glorious and brilliant (with splashes of, ‘How are we going to deal with this?!’) My boys are better humans because of their sister. My husband is entirely different to the man that I met 25 years ago. I absolutely wouldn’t change a single tiny hair on my daughter’s head. I am so glad that I am her mum.