Parenting a Young Adult With Autism Spectrum Disorder: I Interview My Mum

Since this is my blog, the experiences are predominately from my point of view but I thought it would be really useful, as well as interesting, to get a different perspective on the same scenario. So, with that in mind plus the fact that most resources are aimed at the parents of young autistic children, I asked my Mum if I could interview her about what it’s like to be the parent and often advocate for a young adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I came up with a list of questions and she answered them. I had almost no input on her answers, only to ask for more information or detail if I thought she hadn’t fully answered the question or finished a thought. We’re hopeful that this could be of some help to parents with adult children managing a form of Autism.


I’ve talked about what it was like for me to get a late diagnosis but what was that experience like for you?

The process of getting a diagnosis for you was frustrating at best and distressing at worst. You were very clear about your need to know the causes of your difficulties and so refusal from medical professionals to engage with that need was hard to witness. I needed to do the research, follow up possible assessments and/or therapies and talk about your challenges against a backdrop of suspicion of being overprotective and a distrust of my motives. Even when it became clear that your inability to talk for yourself at the outset was a result of Selective Mutism and your experience with those professionals, I was still met with a resistance to engage with me on your behalf.

Although I’m more able to speak for myself now, what has it been like having to do so much advocating for me?

It always felt like it was my role to do this until you were able to do it for yourself. I wasn’t trying to fix things, just get your voice heard, your experience understood so that the problems you were facing could be addressed and the right support provided.

I knew all the answers to questions you were being asked because we’d talked about it all beforehand. Both before and after your diagnosis, it has just felt like I can be the means to you being heard and hopefully understood as and when you are not able to do it yourself.

As in your first question, this doesn’t always work! And I do often feel frustrated by a refusal to accept my intentions, confusing it with a reluctance to ‘allow’ you to speak for yourself/become independent.

Knowing me but having an outside perspective, what would you consider to be the positives and negatives of having Autism Spectrum Disorder?

This is really difficult for me as all I see is YOU, with all your qualities and all your challenges. Combine this with the fact that each person with ASD presents so differently and I do find it difficult to generalise. Understanding more about women on the spectrum now, I see your very singular focus on anything you set out to do as a positive. I think your intense empathy is a double bind, giving you a compassion that can then often be overwhelming. The biggest negative I see is your level of anxiety. This is often debilitating and always massively exhausting and affects most aspects of your life.

How do you think things would’ve been different if my ASD had been recognised when I was younger?

This is a little easier to answer as I think, from all I see now, knowing about it earlier may have enabled us to access support for you and given you access to specialist resources. Having said that, I wonder if a diagnosis earlier might have ended up giving you a label that meant expectations, both your own and society’s, may have been different for you. Increased awareness of and understanding surrounding neurodiversity is relatively recent.

What do you think is the most important skill or trait when it comes to parenting a young adult with ASD?

This question makes me want to ask you what you feel has been most important but my sense is that being there for you, trying to put aside any preconceptions and opinions of my own so that I am able to really listen and hear what you are telling me, leave aside any of my own anxieties or fears, to support and encourage you to do what you want to do; a combination of protection when things are tough and support to push forward when you feel able.

I also feel it has been important to be prepared to read and research for myself and learn all about the condition so I can share this whenever it feels necessary to inform the argument for support. And to be prepared to persist when first attempts are met with a negative response.

I’ve often talked about feeling like a burden for not moving out or contributing more as a young adult. What are your thoughts on this?

In answering this, I would like to reference a quote here, which I think explains how I feel about this. I found this during one of my searches and thought it was a positive recognition of the difference I see and how it affects your life in the sense of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ you contribute and participate. Keri Opai, a Mental Health Service Award Winner in New Zealand, consulted the Maori disabled community in order to develop variants in language that differ from what he called the “sometimes condescending English terms,” and instead emphasised the ‘gaining [of] strength and ability.’ So the word for ‘disabled’ itself is ‘whaikaha,’ which means to “have strength or to be differently able.” He also spoke of people with autism having ‘their own timing, spacing, pacing and life-rhythm’ and so interpreted autism as ‘takiwatanga,’ meaning ‘in his or her own time and space.’ (Te Reo Hapai, the Language of Enrichment by Keri Opai)

I do understand that you feel this way though but I know that you do what you can when you can, and that this inevitably fluctuates according to what you have going on at any particular time. With the anxiety and fatigue you experience on a daily basis, and your focus being studying at the moment, it just doesn’t make sense that you do more than you are able to, nor that you would move out to live independently, with all the extra demands that would make on you, yet. There is plenty of time ahead for that. Until then, I get to enjoy your company and give you the support you need.

I’ve been taking various medications and going to different forms of therapy for years now. What do you think have been the effects of those, positive and negative?

I have always felt that it would be a combination of therapy and medication that would be likely to be the best way forward, and I think we both agree now that this has been the case. It was challenging to find a therapist that you felt able to work with but once we did, we knew instantly that you could start moving forward, in your own time and in whatever way felt possible, something your therapist has always supported.

Regarding medications, I do have concerns about their effects on you physically as well as mentally and appreciate that living together does mean I can help monitor these effects and see patterns and changes that maybe you can’t.

What do you think the hardest part of living with ASD is? 

Again, looking at you, I would say that the hardest part for you, of living with ASD, is the sense of feeling different and feeling left behind your peers; and watching you being so exhausted by managing the mental health issues that have troubled you as a result of the late diagnosis.

Do you feel your life is different because I’m autistic?

Yes, my life is different to what I had expected it would be at this point, but then so is yours. But we deal with that, and make it the best we can, for both of us.

What has been or is the hardest part of parenting a young adult with ASD?

I have often felt very isolated, and criticised for continuing to be your voice when you are not able to speak. And I do worry about the barriers you may face in a world that does not always recognise the assets and abilities of neurodiverse people, expecting autistic people to change rather than have society change the many inhospitable or incompatible environments and expectations that may hinder them.

What help/advice would have been helpful to you at any point?

All the way through… someone willing to believe in my intentions and acknowledge that, I, as a parent, only have your best interests at the core of everything I do.


So hopefully her responses to these questions have been helpful or reassuring to the parents among you guys. During this process, she actually realised that she had questions for me so we decided to do the same thing in reverse and that post will be up tomorrow!

Holding On And Letting Go

A while back, a friend shared this article on Facebook and I couldn’t not share it here. I’m currently in the process of going through everything I own in preparation to move house and so I’m coming across a lot of things that I have previously loved. I’m being constantly faced with the decision to hold onto something or to let it go. So I resonated with this piece very strongly.

I thoroughly recommend reading it but here’s a summary. The author describes feeling sympathy for inanimate objects, from “the guitar that doesn’t get played anymore” to “the once loved camera that has now been displaced by a newer one.” And the thought of an object being discarded causes great anxiety and sadness.

I’ve struggled with this all my life. As a child, all my toys had personalities and thoughts and emotions but that hasn’t faded as I’ve grown up even though I no longer play with them. They’re all still in my cupboard, neatly stored in boxes and bags. I feel guilty about that, that it must be uncomfortable and claustrophobic, but it’s better than throwing them away. That would be the ultimate betrayal. Imagining them in a bin or landfill fills me with such overwhelming anxiety and guilt that I can’t think properly. But it’s not just toys; it’s everything. I have a draw full of my old phones (how can I go from carrying them around twenty four seven to throwing them away?), a box of broken Christmas ornaments (it would be so callous to throw them out just because they’re not perfect anymore), my old school jumper, and so on and so on and so on.

Throwing things away is hard for me. I have this anxiety about letting things go, like I’ll lose parts of myself. Anything that has some meaning to me, I have to keep. It’s similar to how I write everything down and take a million photos. It goes with my difficulties around identity, a big part of BPD, and feeling like I have no idea who I really am. So I’m probably assigning aspects of my identity to physical objects in response to that. It certainly doesn’t help with all of this. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a link to the difficulty I have in managing the strength of my emotions. I’ve talked about this before: how strongly I feel emotions and how I sometimes feel other people’s emotions. I’d always assumed that it was another facet of that.

The article discusses some other potential causes:

“There is some evidence to suggest that OCD and Synaesthesia are possible causes. Put simply, Synaesthesia is a neurological condition where the senses are confused. So someone with it, may smell a taste, or see a particular colour when thinking of a specific number. Some people have a form of Synaesthesia known as Personification. This is when a personality or emotion is attributed to an object. It would appear that there is a higher tendency for those on the autistic spectrum to have Synaesthesia in one form or another.”

The link to Synaesthesia is an interesting one. I do have some Synaesthesia-like experiences: with some sounds, I experience specific tastes or sounds. The sound of 7 chords leaves a metallic taste in my mouth so strong that I avoid those chords as much as possible and working on the production of my songs can be a bit of a minefield: high frequencies, like cymbals, are yellow while lower frequencies are dark colours (different depending on the instrument) and the colours in the song need to be balanced for me to be happy with them. It’s hard work and often leaves me with a debilitating headache.

I don’t know what the answer is or whether there is one. But I think the more we talk about this stuff and the more normal it becomes, the less we struggle against it. That takes up so much energy and emotion when living with these things is hard enough. That’s kind of why I started writing all of this stuff down, to feel less alone and hopefully make other people feel less alone too.

(Left: me and my toys when I was about eleven. Right: confetti that I kept from an amazing concert.)

One Woman With Autism

Ask anyone about Autism and they’ll most likely describe the stereotype: difficulty socializing, a ‘lack of empathy’, specific and focused interests. But, as with everything, it’s so much more complex than that, especially for girls and women with Autism. While there are various statistics on the ratio of boys to girls, it’s clear that there are many more girls and women with Autism than was originally thought. And because the diagnosis of Autism has always been based on the male presentation of Autism, it can be really difficult for girls and women to get diagnoses and support. I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience but I can speak to mine.

I was a shy kid. I was so shy, and so anxious, that I couldn’t be left at after-school clubs or activities. I was petrified and cried until my Mum would take me home. I was constantly told I was too sensitive, that I took things too personally, that I needed to grow a thicker skin. And that really upset me – but then I was being too sensitive, wasn’t I?

These issues continued through my childhood and into my teenage years. I was always anxious and strived for perfection in everything. I was a vigilant rule follower; I couldn’t, and still can’t, break a rule for anything. I was terrified of turning in homework late, convinced it was an unforgivable act. The one time I did forget a piece of homework (because I’d taken it out of my bag to check I’d packed it and then forgotten it in a panic about being late – another constant anxiety), I cried in a corridor and my hands shook when I told my teacher. It was fine, of course, but it didn’t help my anxiety. I was so scared of doing something wrong, of getting into trouble.

In addition to that, I never felt like I quite fitted in. Anywhere. I felt like I was stuck behind glass, separated from everyone else and unable to break through it. Everything seemed so much easier for everyone else; everything they seemed to do effortlessly took all of my energy, leaving me exhausted. I couldn’t understand why I just couldn’t cope as well as everyone around me. For some unknown reason, I couldn’t function as well as everyone else and that made me feel like I was broken. Despite all of this, no one clocked that there was a problem, not a doctor, not my family, not me.

What had always just been a feeling of not coping started to take over other areas of my life. I’d always done well as school, despite missing more than eighteen months when I struggled with an unidentified illness that caused debilitating fatigue. My lowest grade at GCSE was an A (although I was disappointed with not having achieved more A*s). I got to Sixth Form and everything changed. Suddenly every class, every test was a struggle. Learning and applying knowledge had always been something that had come easily to me, something I’d enjoyed, and all of a sudden, it had become so difficult and that was incredibly distressing. My anxiety got higher and higher and depression started to creep in. I was constantly exhausted and just getting through the day started to feel like an impossible task.

The turning point came when I failed an exam. I locked myself in a toilet stall and scratched at my arms over and over with a broken paper clip, desperate to feel anything other than this howling feeling of failure that came from somewhere deeper than I’d ever experienced. I don’t know how long I sat there and I don’t remember much of that day, but that was when my family and I started to realise that there was something really wrong.

A lot went into getting my diagnosis. I’ve lost count of all the doctors I’ve seen, the amount of times we left without any answers, the amount of books we read. I’ve been diagnosed with multiple mental health problems and tried a lot of different medications. I tried various therapies like CBT and EMDR. Nothing helped. But due to my Mum’s never ending commitment, I ended up at the Brighton and Hove Neurobehavioural Service and after several hours answering questions, I walked out with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. To start with, I was too exhausted by getting to that point to take it all in but slowly, everything started to make sense. All these disconnected pieces of my life and my personality began to click into place.

I’ve always felt emotions strongly. If something goes well, I feel like I’m bulletproof. If something goes badly, I can end up in a meltdown: crying, shaking, screaming, and often self-harming. Either that, or I go into shutdown where I retreat to my room and lie in the dark, unable to think or talk properly. Sometimes a meltdown leads to a shutdown and it can last for days, or even weeks.

I’m extremely sensitive. To a lot of things. A change of plan, loud noises, bright lights, unfamiliar people and places, all of those things increase my anxiety, making it difficult for me to function, to make decisions, to interact with people or the environment around me. Processing that information takes a lot of energy and I’m easily exhausted and overloaded. Too much sensory information, too many demands placed on me, the closer I get to a meltdown. It’s a fragile existence, like walking on a tightrope.

I’ve never had trouble with empathy, with ‘stepping into another’s shoes’. Or more accurately, I’ve never found that difficult to do. My struggles tend to be with the other extreme: I’ve been told I’m too empathetic. I frequently experience other people’s emotions as if they’re mine and with such strength that I feel completely overwhelmed. It’s strange and upsetting to, for example, feel grief for someone I didn’t know. It can feel like I’m intruding even though all I ever want to do is help because I know how strong those emotions can be. It’s incredibly difficult for me to see someone upset and not be able to do anything. It can also be very difficult to do something as simple as walk down the street. I just feel overwhelmed by how big everyone’s lives are, how much makes up a person: memories, favourite colours, foods they hate, things they want to happen, things they don’t want to happen, phone numbers they’ve forgotten, songs stuck in their heads. I could go on forever. And when I’m surrounded by people, I feel all of that pressing in on me. It makes it hard to breathe.

Socialising is difficult. Again, processing all the information around me takes a lot of energy: a person’s words, body language, tone, how other people are reacting, everything going on in the background. It’s hard work. It feels like everyone else has a rulebook that I never received and so I’ve had to learn how to be social. Where everyone else processes all this information automatically, I have to actively process it, which takes a lot of energy. So it’s not hard to imagine why I’m tired out very quickly by social situations. Of course many people don’t notice this and have no idea that I’m autistic. Even the visible signs go unnoticed, like my difficulty with eye contact. Aside from the fact that I have no idea how long you’re supposed to hold eye contact for or which eye you’re supposed to look at it, I also feel very vulnerable when someone is looking into my eyes, like they can tell what I’m thinking and feeling.

I do have my own specific interest: writing, in all forms, but my favourite is songwriting. I’ve read a bit about these focussed interests and apparently the interests in the female presentation of Autism tend to go under the radar because they can be similar to a neurotypical girl’s interests, like animals, TV shows, books, particular singers or music groups. It’s the intensity that’s different. I’ve never simply liked something; once I’m interested in something, nothing else matters. When I’m writing, I lose all sense of time. I recently spent ten hours working on a particular piece and only stopped because I noticed my hands shaking. When I looked up, it was dark and I realised that a whole day had passed and I hadn’t eaten. Writing, and writing songs, is everything to me. It’s the only thing I want to do, the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life. It’s hard though, because there’s a big part of me that feels like my life isn’t worth living if I’m not doing that one thing, if I’m not doing songwriting. The music industry is tough as hell so it’s terrifying to think like that. But that’s the truth.

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Of course there are other symptoms and this is just one presentation of Autism. As the specialist that diagnosed me said, we are the experts of our own Autism. But, in my experience, it’s really hard. And it’s made harder when there’s so little understanding around the way Autism affects girls and women. Life post-diagnosis is difficult but at least I know what I’m struggling with. I’m learning what helps and what doesn’t. Not knowing was awful. I felt like I was drowning, like I couldn’t even find the surface. And the years of asking for help and being turned away made it worse. The lack of awareness and understanding about how Autism affects girls and women has real consequences. The time it takes to get a diagnosis and the repeated invalidation causes problems of their own. The people supporting me now think that that was part of the reason I developed Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental health problem that involves instability of mood, behaviour, and self image. And I will never forget one particular doctor’s opinion, that maybe that’s just how life was going to be for me. That remains one of the most upsetting experiences of my life and years later, I’m still struggling to believe that I will ever be happy.

I am so lucky to have found the people who are supporting me now and I feel it because I know that without them, there’s a very real chance that I wouldn’t be here now. But there are so many people without this support. There needs to be more information, more awareness, more understanding of Autism in women. Too often it goes unidentified and the effects of that can be worse than the struggles caused by the Autism itself.