The impact of birth order, on attitudes towards the child, autism, and parenting

My beautiful boys

My first child was autistic. The fact that I hadn’t raised or parented a child previously, had a huge impact on my experiences with and attitudes towards autism. The combination of first-time-mother anxieties and experiential ignorance, with a special-needs child who showed no outward sign at birth of his challenges, was rather devastating. It meant I was slower than I should have been to get my son the help he needed since I let those with (apparently) more experience and expertise undercut my gut-feeling that something just wasn’t right. And it fed a strong sense of guilt that all this must be happening because I screwed up somehow; I clearly sucked both as a parent and as a breeder. I was evidently no good at this, I should have never tried to become a mother.

The darkness I went through when my son was at his worst (and I didn’t understand autism), was a previously unimaginable hell of isolation, self-blame, helplessness, mental exhaustion, all made worse (in my opinion) by the fact that he was my first-born and my only child. And I thought it might be that way for the rest of my days. I hated autism (not my son, I saw my son and autism as separate things which was a very good thing considering my state of mind), and I hated myself. The hatred didn’t come out in anger though, it came out in frustrated tears, everyday. (I don’t really cry at all these days, except when I slammed my finger in the door the other day, that made me cry.)

The fact that my first intimate and lengthy experience with a child was with an autistic one, has also greatly impacted on my second child (who doesn’t have autism). That impact on my second-born has been a particularly positive one, which does not sit flush with the warnings I’d received about bringing another child into the family. I’d been told that siblings of autistic children suffer; that they often feel neglected and have their life experiences limited because of the family trying to work around the autistic child. (I’d also of course been warned that there was a good chance my second child would have autism too.)

But I can see how my experiences with my first-born and his autism, have made me incredibly grateful of the things that drive other mothers mad, such as the destruction wrought by a toddler who actually wants to touch and climb on everything, and the non-stop noisy babble that comes from a child who actually wants to and can use words. My heightened awareness of social interactions due to my eldest’s autism, has given me the ability to set up and encourage what is a particularly loving and gentle relationship between my boys, that people often comment on. I frequently get positive feedback about my youngest, from total strangers – gosh he talks a lot, gosh he’s so social, gosh he’s really a happy child isn’t he! Yes, yes and yes. He stands out in his crowd of peers (and even older children) in all those regards, and I have no doubt that a fair amount of that is a result of his mum having parented an autistic child.

It’s not all sun and roses of course, his life is also negatively effected by his brother’s autism in a variety of ways, but on the balance I do believe the effect has been positive. (And I must emphasize that this is a separate question from whether the effect is positive or negative compared to if he had otherwise had a neurotypical brother.)

There is more to say (and I have more to say in future posts) on all of these issues, as to how the order of children effects attitudes towards autism, towards the autistic child, and their siblings. It’s not just the order either, it’s also the gap between children that appears to have a huge impact. Many of the problems I’d heard about for siblings of autistic children, turned on the issue of parents going through “grief” and learning about how to cope with autism; if there’s not much of a gap then you’re still going through this when the second comes along, so there can foreseeably be more resulting issues.

I realise that this cannot be a discrete question of birth order; that experiences are also inevitably affected by previous education and experiences with children and special-needs, and of course the personality and support networks of the parents. But considering how intensely and completely life-changing it is to become a mother of someone – whether they have special-needs or not – it strikes me that whether it was your first or subsequent child who had autism, has a major role to play it all this. I can only really talk from personal experience and even that is limited by the fact my children are the young ages of five (and a half) and one (and a half). Still, those have been some interesting and life altering experiences, and as always it will be educational to hear about how they compare with others who read what I will write.

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9 Responses to The impact of birth order, on attitudes towards the child, autism, and parenting

  1. nostromo says:

    Our first was normal and our 2nd was Autistic we always were waiting for him to develop in the way our first did..and the longer ‘normal’ didn’t arrive the more anxious we grew. When we questioned his development people would say ‘Boys take longer’ or ‘They all develop at different rates’ or any of the other platitudes you are probably also familiar with. We had to assume they were right. We felt things would start to ‘click’ and come together. I get upset thinking about that.

    • Indeed.

      People are far too quick to brush aside parental concerns about development. They should encourage the concerned parents to seek professional opinions – even if they think the parents are over-reacting. I get the impression sometimes that people get a lift out of feeling they know better, and making the concerned parents seem inferior or panicky compared to their own calm confidence. All it takes is a simple “well in my opinion your child is fine for these reasons, but if you’re really worried I’d see your doctor to share your concerns, maybe there’s something I’m overlooking.” So simple, so easy, so much less judgamental, so much more helpful, and also better for the child’s wellbeing: Either something’s wrong and the child needs help, or something’s not wrong and the parents need real reassurance so they can stop stressing and worrying in ways that also might be impacting the child. I know my (our) opinions are coloured by our experiences, that most of the time there is probably nothing to worry about for most children, but if checking reveals a hearing issue in one ear, or a minor speech impediment, or nothing at all, it’s still worth it to pick up those who do have serious issues such as autism.

      • nostromo says:

        Theres actually a simple way to get a strong indicator, that takes the subjectivity out of the equation and its the M-CHAT questionnare which can be found online

        For me once I read the questions I went ‘Ahhh..’ because what I had been aware of perhaps subconsiously was staring me in the face (maybe its more obvious restrospectively).

        I will point people worrying about ASD in their child online in various forums towards that test as a really good initial screening tool.

      • I just looked it up, I hadn’t heard of that particular one before. Interesting that my (NT) 17 month old passes that test easily on all questions, but my (ASD) 5 year old would have failed almost every single question at the same age (and continued to fail the vast majority of them until after he started therapy at the age of three.)

  2. I don’t think you are giving yourself enough credit! The truth is that no matter what order (or diagnosis or culture) offers, it is up to us as the parent to choose a lesson and use it with positive energy and intention. It sounds to me as though both your son’s are benefitting from your insistance on actively parenting. As the oldest of eight in a home with a single mom and four eventually adopted autistic brothers I was often tempted to dislike (okay, I’ll be honest, dispise) the amount of time my mom had to spend with them (and their teachers!) but my mom’s positive attitude never really allowed for that. The one brother that remains dependent lives with my mom but spends time in my home as well as my sister’s (our lucky husbands!) and is even babysat by my eldest son for entire weeks at a time. I love that my boys have this unique uncle. Although to be honest, they seem less thrilled about it than we did as big sisters. My point is, I think your right that having your autistic son first gave you the opportunity to learn things other moms would not have learned. But you chose to learn them. You chose to use those learnings to create a happy home. That’s beautiful in any order!!

  3. Darcy says:

    I am a twin on the autism spectrum. My typically developing sororal twin has always been a contrast to me. We contrasted greatly in development, and we continue to strikingly contrast in ways that involve autism and ways that do not.

    I am also a mother of triplets, two on the spectrum and one not. All three are very different, and my typical son is leaps ahead of his sisters. I actually feel guilty celebrating his milestones because it seems unfair to my baby girls whose lives are harder than his, and I also feel guilty for feeling guilty because celebrating milestones is normal!

    • Very interesting comment Darcy.

      I’ve had similar thoughts about celebrating my NT’s son’s progress, I tend to make myself feel better about it by consciously commenting at the same times about how well his brother is also doing; “yes Mr 1 yr-old is a fast walker and talker, and his elder brother has just gone up another reading level!” sort of thing.

      And wow do you have your hands full there! My sister has twins, and my grandmother is a twin, so I’m distantly aware of such challenges, but triplets – and two of them having special needs on top of that..! I can’t imagine. You have my respect to say the least.

  4. KDL says:

    My oldest is on the autism spectrum and her twin siblings are just about the same age younger as the age difference in your sons. We knew she had some developmental delays, but we did not know she was autistic until after her siblings were born…In some ways I think she is better off for us not knowing all of her issues, because we never restricted where we took her, what activities we participated in, who we introduced her to, or what our expectations of her were. She missed out on some early speech, OT and social skill intervention, but her experiences were normal and might not have been if someone had told us earlier that she is autistic. That being said, it did make the first year or so following the twins’ birth a bit stressful as I watched the development of her siblings intently…I watched every move for “red flags” and rejoiced at every met milestone, and then emotionally kicked myself because it seemed like by wishing them to be neurotypical I was rejecting my eldest. I’m still not sure I’ve resolved all of this…occasionally one of the twins will do something that sets me on edge, and then there are days like today when I hear one of them say to the other, “Let’s play with these!” something that their sister at the same age could not communicate, and I sigh a happy sigh. Very complicated emotions we’re delving into here and I suppose each family will have a different set of responses depending on their own background and experience. My twins dote on their “Sissy” and I savor each moment of that, knowing that someday it may not be so rosy a picture, but we handle each bridge as we cross it, you know.

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