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My son’s autism taught me how to drop my mask and accept myself

This First Person article is by Julie Green, a writer who was diagnosed with autism in her 40s. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

In 2012, my three-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. At the time, his diagnosis felt all-consuming. 

It was the steepest of learning curves because the only thing I knew about autism came from watching Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. In other words, a stereotype. 

As I spent the next several years getting to know my son, it dawned on me how similar we were. So many of his quirks were my quirks. The way he saw patterns in everything. His love of the written word. His perfectionism and low tolerance for any changes in routine. How easily he became overwhelmed and had meltdowns. His sensitivities to smells and sounds and certain fabrics were my sensitivities. 

The more I learned about the unique workings of his brain, the more I learned about my own. And I began to question everything I thought I knew about myself until that point. The constant fiddling with my hair and picking at my nails wasn’t stimming — or was it? The way I rehearse and ruminate over conversations in my head wasn’t autism — or was it? 

Green, pictured as a child, was a shy and sensitive girl. (Submitted by Julie Green)

As a girl, I was painfully shy and hypersensitive and, at times, (I’ll just right come out and say it) weird. I could be intense, fussy and demanding. I had frequent migraines and couldn’t seem to handle busy places and social gatherings. Even the birthdays and Christmases I looked forward to were usually a bust. And yet I could speak and always had at least one friend, so in my ignorance assumed I couldn’t be on the spectrum. 

I wasn’t like the characters I’d seen on TV and read about in books. It never occurred to me that I could be autistic because so little was known when I was growing up about how it could show up in girls. More often than not, autism in females was missed entirely or misdiagnosed as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression or borderline personality disorder.

A long time after my son’s diagnosis — nine years, to be exact — I finally connected the dots. During the pandemic, my suspicions were confirmed following an assessment by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. 

I am autistic. Of course, I am. Autism is highly heritable. And it can look so different. It is a spectrum, after all.

Despite our differences, my son and I connect in ways that feel personal to us. There was the year we geeked out and obsessively listened to the Beatles and nothing but the Beatles. Sometimes playing a single song on repeat for days. The way we can both eat peanut butter every day and never tire of it. The passion we share for dogs, ’80s music and John Green novels. 

A woman eats an ice cream sandwich while sitting next to a boy whose face has been blurred. He’s holding a half-eaten ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles.
Being an autistic mom to an autistic child comes with a unique set of benefits and challenges for Green. (Submitted by Julie Green)

I can intuit what my child needs in a way I probably couldn’t if my brain wasn’t wired the same way. I can tell while shopping if that T-shirt is too scratchy or whether the smell that no one else can detect will make being in that environment impossible for him. Autism gives me a sixth sense that has nothing to do with seeing ghosts and everything to do with being neurodivergent. 

Of course, being an autistic mom is no cakewalk. I struggle with my mental health — always have. Postpartum depression hit me hard after my son was born. 

Many autistic moms like me feel guilty and blame ourselves for passing on our genes. I remain so fearful of being judged and criticized that I often mask or hide my autism, especially around professionals. I can feel isolated yet reluctant to ask for help. I can feel like a terrible mother, even though I never fail to put my child’s needs above my own.

I share my stories of being rejected and bullied with my son, and show how I cope with difficult situations as an adult. I do my best to model how to advocate for yourself in a world that, despite all the awareness campaigns, still isn’t easy to navigate when you are neurodivergent. 

I teach my son the tricks of the trade — how to breathe through his mouth in smelly public spaces and how to air dry his hands instead of blasting them with the hand dryer to avoid sensory overload. If he must feign eye contact, which can be deeply uncomfortable, I tell him to alternate between glancing at someone’s eyes and their nose or forehead. I teach him how to regulate his emotions by taking deep breaths. 

WATCH | First responders get sensory tool kits to help people with autism: 

Sunglasses, fidgets, weighted blankets: First responders get sensory tool kits to help people with autism

First responder sensory tool kits can be used for anyone who is in distress, to help make people feel more comfortable in what can be a high-stress situation. Paul Walsh, the CEO of the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, says noise-cancelling headphones, a whiteboard and markers and name tags can go a long way to helping neurodiverse and people with autism.

Above all, I encourage him to know and like who he is — funny and brilliant and unapologetically himself. This is something I am still working on. I’m so used to masking and beating myself up for the way I am. I hope he will have the advantage of knowing he is autistic from a young age and can tap into a supportive community that didn’t exist for me.

If I hadn’t learned about my child’s neurodivergence, I might have spent the rest of my life confused and ashamed of my own differences. 

For all the things I teach him, it’s my son who teaches me the most valuable lesson of all: be yourself and quit hiding. 

A woman and a teenage boy stand with their backs touching. The boy’s face has been blurred.
Green, left, encourages her autistic teenage son to be proud of who he is. (Submitted by Julie Green)

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