Parenting and me, part 1 – the early years as a parent on the spectrum

I became a parent to a beautiful daughter at the age of 20. In the grand scheme of things these days this isn’t that ‘young’ an age to first become a parent. To me it was though, emotionally immature and struggling in life I hadn’t moved much forwards from the mental age of 16. I’ve only recently had a diagnosis as being on the autistic spectrum and I’ve found it interesting and saddening to look back at some of my strengths and weaknesses as a parent.

I’d always said that I never wanted to have a child when asked as a youngster, I wasn’t a child who liked to play ‘mother’ when I was in infant school. My main reason for not wanting a child was fear of pain, the whole experience of child birth seemed horrific to me. When I found out I was pregnant it was a surprise, but after some supportive words from my Mum I was determined I would do this. Becoming a parent is the best thing which has happened to me in my life, despite my difficulties at times.

My daughter is now 13, so it’s quite a long way to look back. I remember not everyone being supportive of my situation that I was close to, which was pretty upsetting. I fear unknown places, situations, so had to have a lot of support from my Mum to attend appointments and the anti natal group. From day 1 I had a mindset in place that I was going to do things ‘right’. I thoroughly researched all the pain relief options and wrote a very clear and specific birth plan, right down to the play list I wanted to listen to. I’d just moved into my own house a few weeks before I gave birth, from my Grandparents house. When I had found out I was pregnant I’d moved in with them for a period of time to pay off my debts and to save some money. The night I started to have contractions I’d been swimming with my Mum, had tea & had gone home to mine to be on my own. When the contractions did kick in I focused on reading a book I was really into at the time and had a bath – water is something I find hugely comforting. I did eventually ring my Mum just before dawn who took me back to her house and when the midwife came she sent us straight to hospital where my daughter was born 2 hours later. From the moment she was born I wanted to go back to my Grandparents house (which had been the plan) The hospital was scary, I didn’t know where anything was and I wanted to get back to my comfort and routines. There were tears and I was eventually discharged a few hours later when the Dr did their rounds.

I put everything into what I saw as doing parenting right, I breastfed my daughter, read up on how to help her with sleep and colic, read her basic stories even as a tiny baby. I did find the crying overwhelming at times, but when I discovered she loved white noise it made things easier. I moved back into my own house after a few weeks of being with my grandparents. It felt quite lonely at times, only my routines of watching specific programs to keep me company. I was scared to go outside through fear of getting things wrong or getting lost. Looking back now it was quite clear that I had post natal depression, although I couldn’t have recognised it at the time. My family and my daughter’s Dad’s family were my only contact with the outside world. Although there were some groups in the area for parents I found it too overwhelming to attend. Once my daughter had her injections I was able to take her swimming which was something we both loved, we both relaxed in the water and she was always so tired afterwards she slept well. As my confidence grew I was able to take her for short walks to the duck pond, although I remember getting lost of one occasion and ending up sobbing on the pavement as she was crying to be fed and I didn’t know what to do. I phoned for someone to come and get me in the end.

When she was 5 months old I went back to work, initially for an optimistic 4 days a week, which I dropped almost straight away to 2 days as I found it too exhausting and couldn’t cope with missing her. I was still determined to do things ‘properly’ as I saw them in my mind, so would express milk for her every morning and my Mum would pick me up from work so I could feed her straight away afterwards. When she was a year old we moved house, this opened a small window out of the loneliness – we were right by a library which meant I could get books for me to read and could take her to story time. The library was a huge life line to me and a source of comfort. I also joined as a member for the local zoo, we could catch the bus there at 2pm, taking a picnic with us, we’d have it in a quiet spot I’d discovered in a beautiful garden near a fountain, by the time we had finished the zoo would be quiet and the animals would be more active as there were less people around. I was determined to show my daughter interesting things, an approach I’ve kept to throughout her life.

Weaning my daughter onto solid food came with the same determined mindset. I took out books from the library to research recipes and made everything from scratch. Always eating the same food as her once she moved onto meals. I was terrified of doing something wrong and wanted to reassurance of the knowledge from the books. I am sure the relaxed mindset I conveyed at the time and variety of foods my daughter explored has really helped her with her relationship with food now – she eats a good diet as a teenager and loves fruit and veg.

I was terrified of social groups, but knew I would have to go for the sake of my daughter, the books told me how important it was. I went to groups from when she was small, feeling scared on every occasion as I didn’t know how to connect with people or how to approach people to make friends, the impact on myself afterwards was hard and I’d often get upset and feel hugely anxious the night before attending the next one. I found playing with the children on the carpet more comforting than being around the adults. It became easier when she went to a playgroup as a toddler where they needed parents to be helpers as I could focus on practical tasks like getting toys out and helping children with craft activities.

Due to being a working parent I often didn’t have to be part of the playground routine as I had to make use of the out of hours childcare. On my days off when I did have to do pick ups I found the experience excruciating. That feeling of being on the outside, looking in was always there, and I’d approach it with dread and anxiety. Parents meetings weren’t easy either. I wanted the very best for my daughter and would pick things apart if I thought something wasn’t being done properly. I can come across as quite confrontational when I am doing this and can get fixated on particular things. I’d always come away feeling distressed, like I hadn’t been heard. My daughter excelled at school and I often felt that she wasn’t being sufficiently challenged.

I had little money as a single parent but threw everything into budgeting so my daughter wouldn’t miss out. Despite loving the water I am a terrible swimmer, I struggle with coordination and learning new things and despite hours of one to one swimming lessons as a child I’ve barely mastered much beyond crooked breaststroke. I paid for swimming lessons for her from a really young age as I wanted her to have the best chance to excel, which she did – she now swims all strokes like a fish and shares my love of the water.

As she got older I knew we needed to do normal family things like go on holiday. I’d never learnt to drive (the coordination thing again) and planning a holiday seemed like a frightening concept. The trips we did in the early days were always with the support of others. Discovering we could reach the Devon coast by train was a revelation, we found a holiday park which was by two magical coves and returned there for a number of years for holidays – the park was small, low key and quiet, perfect for my noise intolerance! I loved the comfort of knowing where I was going, familiar places to get food and simple enjoyable activities like taking a short boat trip, having a beach BBQ or swimming in the sea. The journey by train did make me hugely anxious despite the copious planning, but where I lacked in social skills my daughter would make up for it my talking to anyone and everyone, it made me feel a lot less lonely at times. My daughter still remembers those trips and we both have a fondness for the coast around Brixham.

Having friends round and parties was an area which I really struggled with, I knew to meet my ‘good parent’ standards I would have to have a party for her each year. This was again something I put lots of planning into – soft play parties, cinema trips, making a pizza party, sleepovers etc. I’d always make a birthday cake from scratch (despite being a terrible baker) and would let my daughter chose what she wanted from our cake book. I also made all the food for her parties. I could quite easily do all the practical stuff, but the on the day having to talk to parents was really overwhelming. Again, my Mum stepped in so I could focus on the practical tasks of putting food out etc and she could do the social things. I avoided doing parties with party games etc at home as knew that would require too much communication on my part. Having friends round was also tricky, as I wasn’t part of the play ground clique I was never sure how to initiate this contact, so we didn’t have many friends around. Instead I made sure my daughter was involved in lots of extra curricular activities such as Beavers and after school activities. If she did have an invite from someone else it gave me the chance to invite them back, but this didn’t happen often. If we did have a friend round I’d always arrange an activity such as doing things outdoors so there was less noise (which I find hard). Now she is a teenager it’s much easier as she can arrange things herself which I am happy to support. I will come onto the teenage years in a later blog post.

As she grew up we both developed a love for nature, we learnt about it together and spent hours exploring our local park documenting and researching what we found there when we got home. I had a few relationships which enabled us to develop an interest in mountains and hill walking, which has accumulated in some pretty epic adventures – seeing rare British wildlife, mountaineering in the snow, outdoor swimming. I am not good at initiating conversation, but these experiences enable us to walk and talk and to build memories together as a unit. We’ve always shared these experiences together and learnt at the same time, which has felt particularly important. She’s just about to go away on her own to a conservation camp next week having won a competition to attend based on her writing about volunteering.

I regularly doubted my abilities to be a good parent, and often cried tears of frustration when I got things wrong or where times were hard. It’s actually felt quite helpful writing this blog post as it’s helped me to see that I did always try my best for my daughter, perhaps bringing her up in slightly unconventional way, but then that has made her the knowledgeable and interesting person she has grown up into. I feel like there could be more resources available, specifically to parents on the spectrum, because even if I had been offered parenting classes at the time they wouldn’t have been helpful – I was able to understand how to do the practical tasks through reading about them, it was the more abstract concepts of communication with others, managing emotions, social situations which were tricky and there don’t seem to be any books geared directly at autistic parents on this subject. Communication is something which is cropping up more now my daughter is a teenager so I will write a further post about growing up in due course. Once again I’d be interested to hear about the experiences of others on spectrum, particularly if you had your diagnosis prior to becoming a parent.

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