I want to preface what I’m about to write, by saying that I have always loved my autistic son. I have always chosen to be closely involved with his daily life and to help him with his daily struggles. But it has been incredibly hard – and sometimes dangerous – for me to be his mother. It has often be heart-breakingly sad. A lot of things got a lot better for everyone after I had his brother (who doesn’t have any signs of autism). This post is about how that brother helped me to cherish and accept my first son more, and helped his own development and happiness too.
I missed out on a lot of very positive and yearned for experiences, when I had an autistic child. The awareness of what I was missing out on, was highlighted whenever I spent time with families of other preschool children, who talk to and hug and play with their parents; which is part of why it can make you feel even more alone and misunderstood when you spend time with those other families. I couldn’t take my son to the activities and events that other parents did either; if I tried I’d be lucky to even get my son out of the car, then usually I’d have to cope with his meltdown, until the time at which we’d leave the event early (and not get invited back, no one wants that family to return).
I had so many expectations about what my son would be able to do, how much fun it would be to teach him, and how awesome it would be to hear his thoughts and feelings about the world I’d brought him into. I am not a bad mother for having expectations of my son; they were completely natural to have. Neither am I a bad mum for mourning the loss of those things when receiving his diagnosis of autism. Wondering what job he would have, where he would live, how many children he would have, became very real concerns that he would never have a job, never have children, and probably never live independently either. I thought I was so open-minded about what he’d want to do with his life – whatever he chose to do would be fine with me, I was sure I’d learn to love all his choices simply because he made them – compare that to the realisation that your child might never even be able to make such choices in the first place.
In time I came to better understand autism and my own child, and came to terms with the reality he and I now faced. But there remained that lingering sadness that I didn’t get to experience all those things every other parent around me was busy taking for granted and even complaining about: The endless chatter and questions from a preschooler; the milestones that mean you have to baby-proof your house because they become so adventurous and interested in their world; those hilarious daily antics that leave you laughing while you’re trying to tell them off.
There is a comparative joy in dealing with tantrums brought on by a neurotypical child who wants to do something he’s not allowed to do; than the endless meltdowns of an autistic child not willing (or sometimes even able) to do something he has to do just to get through each day. That makes for a very different parenting experience.
I hadn’t truly realised how much that sadness had remained, or how much those things meant to me, until I had our second son, who filled those holes in my parenting life. I now have a child I can snuggle until he squirms free, and turn upside down and throw up in the air without his having a sensory issues and resulting meltdowns. A child who babbles so endlessly that one of his grandmothers felt compelled to say “he just doesn’t shut up does he.” No, he doesn’t, and I love him for it. And I’ll not be telling him to shut up anytime soon. I can even take him on car rides and actually get out at the end location, at which point he is excited and eager to investigate the new location, not fearfully shaking.
Having these desires in my life filled, means I no longer dwell on not having had them with my first son. The pain and loss of all those wonderful things, isn’t erased, but it is eased and made less significant. I look less to the past and the losses, and focus more on the present and what I have.
Having a younger sibling in the house has also allowed me to see the competences and accomplishments of my eldest autistic son, because he teaches and cares for his younger brother. He too seems to have a new awareness since having a younger brother, of what he is good at and can do, because his younger brother is not good at and could not do those same things (such as walking, talking and eating hard foods). So the in-home emphasis very naturally shifts from what the eldest can not do, to what the eldest can do.
Quite amusingly, his younger brother also teaches him. When the youngest plays with a toy the way it was “intended” to be played with, or investigates something previously ignored or discounted by his older brother, or wants to do a new physical skill that used to scare the eldest; my eldest son takes an interest in trying it for himself too. I suppose it’s a rather natural sort of motivating jealousy sometimes too; we praise the youngest for doing X, so the eldest wants to do X too. Or we give the youngest lots of endless cuddles, so the eldest wants some of that action too thanks.
It also allows us as parents to point out to the eldest that there are special things – special independent activities and tasks – that only big boys get to do. Only big boys can dress themselves, hop out of the bath by themselves, not have to wear nappies, eat certain foods, etc.
There was a time, early on, that I loved one son more than the other, and my awareness and knowledge of that shocked and scared me. I loved the first child – my autistic son – more. Because I knew him. Because I had been though so much with him. How could a new little baby compete with that? I loved the new baby – absolutely – but not “as much” as his brother. Quite naturally, as time went by and I got to know and experience my second son more, I came to love them both equally and beyond measure. I utterly adore my sons, just thinking about how much I love them makes me teary-eyed. They are kind, beautiful, hilarious, happy children. They both drive me nuts sometimes – in very different ways – but I wouldn’t want to be without them for anything.
If my second son had turned out to be autistic – there was always a chance of that of course – I would have coped. Maybe I would have found the same level of joy and acceptance as I currently have of them. Maybe things would have even turned out better than they did having a second son who was neurotypical. I don’t know, and I’ll never know; my story is my life, I cannot rewrite it with maybes. But as things stand, I can say that I am very glad we took the chance of having a second child, and very glad that he turned out to be neurotypical; that was what this family needed.