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.