Autistic Mothers' Experience of Parenthood

Poster Presentation
Saturday, May 12, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
S. Hampton1, R. Kenny1, R. Holt1, B. Auyeung2, C. Allison3 and S. Baron-Cohen3, (1)University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom, (2)University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, (3)Autism Research Centre, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Background: Little research has explored how autistic women navigate the challenges involved throughout parenthood. Findings from one study, as well as anecdotal accounts, suggest that autistic mothers do not receive sufficient support and feel judged and misunderstood by medical and education professionals (Pohl et al., 2016). It is therefore important that research addresses not only the challenges autistic mothers face but also their strengths. For example, it is possible that autistic mothers may be well placed to support autistic characteristics of their children and may be particularly strong at providing routine and security for their children.

Objectives: The study aimed to identify the potential strengths of being an autistic mother, as well as areas where support is required.

Methods: The study took a qualitative approach, aiming to provide an in depth, nuanced account to complement the prior quantitative study on the topic. Three autistic mothers attended a focus group concerning their experience of parenthood. The focus group was semi-structured and guided by questions concerning 5 main areas: parenting challenges, parenting strengths, approaches to parenthood, parent-child relationships and support needs. The ages of the mothers ranged from 40 to 43 years old and the ages of their children ranged from 4-22 years old. All of the mothers had at least one child with autism and at least one child without autism.

Results: A process of inductive, thematic analysis revealed 5 key themes. Firstly, parents identified strengths associated with being an autistic mother, including skills in practical aspects of parenting, advocating for one’s child and the ability to understand their autistic children due to their own diagnosis. Secondly, parents highlighted parenting challenges, including difficulties engaging in creative play and difficulty modelling social skills for their children. Thirdly, mothers felt a strong sense of others’ judgement. They reported feeling judged by professionals, by whom mothers felt blamed for their children’s challenges, in addition to a strong pressure to conform to normative parenting expectations. These expectations included expressing emotion in neurotypical ways and emulating normative ideals of the ‘perfect’ family life. Fourthly, mothers described their own non-normative approach to parenting. They expressed awareness of not conforming to the ideals of motherhood and described a different approach to mothering in which their concern and affection for their children, while just as strong as that of neurotypical mothers, are differently expressed. Finally, mothers showed dissatisfaction with the support available, which often involved being required to attend stressful social situations and endure scrutiny from professionals. Mothers expressed a desire for non-judgemental mentoring and peer support.

Conclusions: These findings point towards the need for greater understanding of parenthood for those with autism amongst professionals. Our findings suggest that traditional forms of support may not be helpful for autistic mothers and that systems of peer support may be particularly beneficial. This qualitative study could be followed by a quantitative survey to test if the themes generalise to a larger sample. The findings have important policy implications for how best to support autistic mothers.