Stepparent and autistic. If there is a harder path to take in life, I seem to end up walking it. But here I am, and I suspect there are quite a few autistic people walking alongside me.
The voices of autistic parents, be it step, adopted, foster or biological and our experiences of parenthood are not really promoted, but are worth hearing. What follows is a little of my own story.
Being a stepparent has been one of the biggest tests of my life. Mostly due to the societal status of the stepparent role itself than autism to be honest, but add in autism and wow, it can get tough.
Looking after my stepchildren impacts my ability to manage the things I sometimes find challenging. My sensory and social world has changed entirely. There is suddenly a lot of noise and social contact in the form of play dates, parent’s evenings and more busyness in an environment that I am less able to control than previously. There are more people, expectation and contact than I can sometimes handle. It can lead to overwhelm and shutdowns, it has done.
Both identities (stepparent and autistic) can be subject to harmful stereotyping and misconceptions and both identities are generally marginalised in wider society with very little specific support or even recognition. Well-being and mental health support is one area which demonstrates this.
For example, parenting support is predominately promoted for and dominated by birth parents, where being a stepparent (adopted, foster…) honestly doesn’t usually feel welcome or even safe. Autistic spaces for parents are usually dominated by parents of autistic children. There is just no support for when you do struggle. Which you do. And usually no contact with your peers, other autistic parents. (If seeking support, please see link to Autistic Parents UK at the end of the article.)
This all brings challenges, but I can get through all the above with the correct tools and strategies in place (top tip, time outs are not just for children!) and my always supportive partner. And despite all the above, it is also extremely rewarding.
Alongside being one of the biggest tests, being an autistic stepparent has also been one of the best experiences of my life. We as autistic people can and do parent exceptionally well and it is my belief and experience that autism actually adds to our parental experience and that of our little ones in a positive way.
For instance, as an autistic person, routine is key for my well being and you know what, it really benefits the children too. They know exactly what is expected of them and when and I am always consistent with them and any rules. My autistic trait of being unable to lie means they know I will always be honest with them. I despise and stand up to bullys and bullying and will always seek to right the injustices in their lives.
My often childlike glee at simple things and constant wonder at the world plus my experience of being different and misunderstood helps me connects with their world in a way other adults sometimes can’t achieve. The high level of empathy I experience means I am exceptionally perceptive to their needs. I have spent my life trying to understand people, I'm an expert! My experiences with mental ill health helps me connect to their worries and anxieties.
And I am a positive role model, living proof of diversity, difference and sheer bloody minded resilience right smack bang in the middle of their lives.
Connecting with my stepchildren has opened up a whole new level of human connection for me. They don’t care if my body language is not as expected, or if I said something slight differently. When I take quiet time out, they come lie next to me in silence, just enjoying my company and the cosiness.
I have long silly conversations with my stepson where I just enter his imaginative world and there is no expectation that I say the right thing at the right time. I love the pressure this removes from me and he just loves that I go with him into his world and don't try to impose the real world on top.
I remember telling them I was autistic and they all just sort of shrugged and went about their business. I was left thinking, but this is a massive thing I have just told you! I’m autistic, is it that you don’t care? Then the realisation dawned. They care, of course they do, but it doesn’t make one iota of difference to them.
You are still their stepmum, their dad’s support, the one who tells them off, hugs them, celebrates their wins, and is there for them. The one who occasionally goes and lies in a dark room for half an hour... (don’t all parents do this?!) They show unconditional love and acceptance untainted by adult prejudices.
During a conversation with the eldest last summer I tried to describe the differences in my sensory world. As we were sat in the garden I explained how I could sense every detail around me, every blade of grass, every rustle in the tree, the tiny bug moving in among the fallen petals. How wondrous it was, but how overwhelming it can be.
Last week she came to me and hesitating slightly, explained she wished she could see the world from my perspective for a little while, referring to my example of the natural world in the garden, so she could understand better. Endearingly she explained that she hadn’t known how to articulate that wish, what the right words were as she didn’t want to upset me.
I told her just being aware that words have impact was good enough. And I thanked her, because in all my 38 years, she had been the only person to express a wish to me to see the world from my point of view, to understand how it is for me as an autistic person. She is nine years old.
We both got a bit teary at that point and moved on, but I was left with such a feeling of love and awe for her way of thinking. Being a stepmother brought that wonderful compassion and experience into my life.
Stepparent and autistic. Tough life paths, but would I want to change either identity, no way!
Link to support:
Autistic Parents UK - Autistic Parents UK is a user-led non-profit association founded by a group of Autistic parents who all experienced a gap in support and understanding for Autistic people during parenthood.
Links to some more reading: Please note Aupeer doesn't endorse some of the terminology used in these links:
Exploring autistic mothers’ experience of the perinatal period and parenthood - A comparative study of autistic and non-autistic women’s experience of motherhood showing the need for tailored support.