A Silent Mother


Image by Ehsan Khakbaz via Flickr

One of the most upsetting and isolating behaviours by my autistic son, was when he refused to let me talk to anyone except him. This went on in varying degrees, for over six months. It severely affected my relationship with my husband: Any time I wanted to talk to him, we had to sneak off to a different room and I’d whisper my message very quickly, before my son discovered us conversing. Since I was “permitted” to talk directly to my son, I tried to use this loop-hole to actually talk to my husband – directing my body language and tone at my son but using words for my husband. It fooled my son for maybe a day.

Before I expand on how much this affected us and how we eventually resolved it, I should explain what my son would actually do when I spoke. He would scream and cry for starters, so even if I persisted in trying to talk, no one could hear me. He would hit my mouth if he could get close enough. If I refused to stop talking he would bite me too – only me, he wouldn’t go to bite the person I was talking to. His tantrum would quickly escalate, so that it would take a lot of time and physically restraining him to get him to calm down. Even when he was somewhat calmed, his anxiety levels would stay high for hours, whereby the smallest thing could set him off again (such as someone touching one of his lined-up cars).

Refusing to let me talk started in the car, but expanded over time so I wasn’t allowed to talk to people in my own home, in their homes, or out and about – such as at his kindergarten. When I’d visit my mother with him, I had to whisper to her so he wouldn’t notice, or I’d resort to writing notes instead of speaking so I wouldn’t set him off. At kindergarten I was in constant fear that an adult would try to talk to me – whether another parent or a teacher. As long as I didn’t reply it would be fine, but if I attempted an answer (to avoid appearing horribly rude), the meltdown would start. I started carrying around a note in my bag so I could explain to people why I couldn’t talk, without having to tell them verbally.

My son let me talk to other children at the kindergarten though, which was an unusual exception, with no obvious explanation. And as you’ll see at the end of this post, it would be part of the eventual overcoming of the behaviour.

When therapists would visit us at home for my son’s sessions (the speech therapist, occupational therapist, or educational psychologist), I couldn’t reply to their questions and give them feedback on how things were going, without getting hit and bitten. Many times I was asked by various therapists, what methods had I used to try to stop his reactions. I told them I’d tried everything – from talking through the tantrums (ignoring them), to methods of disciplining my son, to physical efforts of calm him, everything I could imagine, and everything they’d suggested. It was affecting the therapy sessions so much that one day his speech therapist wanted to see what would happen if we just kept talking and ignored his tantrums. I warned her how bad it would get, but she either didn’t believe me or wanted to see it for herself, and so we tried it.

It was horrendous. My son screamed and cried, without breaks except to catch his breath. He turned tables and toys over, destroying what ever he could get his hands on. He pulled at my dress when I stood up so he couldn’t reach my face, biting it and almost pulling it off me. I did what she told me and refused to meet his eyes, or make efforts to calm him. We kept turning away from him and continued talking, though neither of us could hear much at all of what the other said. He was deeply distraught, I was upset and near tears, even she was exhausted, by the time she agreed it wasn’t going to work about half an hour later.

To varying extremes, this behaviour continued from the age of three, to the age of four, and then we cracked it without knowing it was happening. My second son was born. I was so worried about how I was meant to be able to talk to my new child when my older one would tantrum each time I tried to talk to other people. But at our first outing from home as a family in the car, I went to speak to my new son in his carseat, and my older son let me. Wow. I pushed further, I tried to talk to my husband, and he let me do that too. Double wow.

Over the next few weeks my son’s tolerance for me talking to people other than himself, expanded, until it wasn’t an issue ruining my life anymore. It still pops up now and then – he’ll get anxious sometimes and try to order me by saying “no talking”. But we know where it will lead if we let him get into that habit again, and we come down hard and clear at those times that he cannot have control over other people in that way. It’s easier now to make him understand that this is not something he can dictate – his comprehension has come a long way over the past year. As he takes more control over his autism and his world, he seems to need to take less control over me. I no longer have to suffer in silence.

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8 Responses to A Silent Mother

  1. Carters says:

    Wow! This was incredible. I am so glad you can write about this now, when so many of us had no idea of what you were going through during this whole ordeal. Your writing has really opened up for us what life is like with an autistic kid. You are such a great mother & you have achieved so much success with raising your son. Thank you for sharing this with all of us. xx Sherid

    • And thank you for being my friend through it all! It’s a shame we couldn’t both be there for each other more, due to that whole ocean thing being in the way! But I always knew I could rely on your support ❤

  2. KDL says:

    There were so many things that would cause meltdowns for my daughter that we never figured out what the antecedent was or really how to handle the situation at its worst. I’ve never had to have a code of silence, but my daughter still gets upset if she says something to one person and another person answers. Fortunately now she just says, “No, I was talking to so-and-so!” and we move on after suggesting a more polite way to phrase her objection. I think part of this is because it is so hard for children on the spectrum to maintain interaction with one person, and bringing another person into the interaction becomes overwhelming. I’m glad that your son has progressed beyond this issue. And I’m glad I found your blog. I enjoy your writing, perhaps because it feels like you are writing some of my own thoughts. Thank you!

    • You’re absolutely right – these kids really do struggle with personal interactions and that’s no doubt part of what was causing the issue. I’m hoping that when he’s older he might still remember what he did and maybe be able to tell me why!

      And thank you for your kind comments, I appreciate it 🙂

  3. Jim w says:

    Okay…catching glimpses of past horrors now…I’m glad he’s moved on to elephant enquiries. Coming in at the end, as I am, is like skipping over the scary part of the movie and catching the happy ending.

  4. Friederika says:

    Oh wow, I am so glad you wrote this those years ago. This is EXACTLY what I am going through right now. My daughter doesn’t bite me, but she will cry, scream, and tries to hit me until she vomits. I can’t talk to my hubby, and when I see people I know in the supermarket, I turn around and pretend I didn’t see them. She’s fine when I talk with other kids her age or slightly older, but I can’t have people over or talk with others in a cafe, or actually I can’t talk with others anywhere. My daughter is 2.5 years of age now and has a metabolic disorder, GDD with austitic features. Her being upset when we talk has always been there, but I sort of worked around it if I am perfectly honest. And those phases wouldn’t last long and calming/distracting her was fairly easy. Not anymore!! For the last 25 days I have again lived in silence, but she’s starting to get a bit better again with letting me and my hubby talk, but it’s still touch and go really. We would love to have another kid, so your post gives me hope!! Thank, thank, thank you again for sharing this. I was crying when I read your post an hour ago. All the best, Friederika and Stella from Auckland

    • Your comment really touched me, thank you so much for taking the time to share and to comment – I know you must be time-poor. I’m glad my post gave you hope, please do come back and let me know how you get on over time if you get the chance. Wishing you and your family all the best xxx

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