Mothers

In the news recently, a claim that ‘missing microbes cause childhood cancer’. New research, apparently, suggests that a child’s immune system can become cancerous if it is not exposed to enough bugs early in life:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-44199844

Although we are reassured that ‘This study is absolutely not about blaming parents for being too hygienic’,  imagine the impact if you are the mother of a child with cancer? As well as dealing with the distress of witnessing your child’s illness, you are offered the possibility that your own care-giving practice might have been responsible. ‘Another way to knock mothers’  I thought to myself when I read the report. I’ve about had my bellyful recently…

Mother blame

Last semester I was asked to take a seminar group for a module which focuses on psychological perspectives on educational processes. I don’t usually teach on the module and I found the opportunity interesting and often valuable. One thing I was struck by, however, was how often mothers are blamed for poor educational outcomes.

I was already aware of the link between early literacy and maternal education, a relationship which tends to act as an indicator of socio-economic class.  Last semester, however, I encountered research which linked  child outcomes to psychological factors such as maternal self-efficacy, maternal self-esteem and maternal resilience. While these may also be associated with social class, I found it interesting that there was no mention of paternal well-being; rather than associate poor outcomes with the broader context of home, they were laid firmly at the feet of the mother.

As well as linking mothers to outcomes in relation to child development and achievement, research studies have suggested a relationship between mothering and a child’s experience of school. Studies of bullying, for example, have suggested that ‘maternal hostility’, ‘maternal mental health’, ‘maternal demand’ and early motherhood all positively correlate with a child ‘having a participant role in bullying behaviour’.

A framework of ‘cumulative risk’ identifies ten key factors which affect educational outcomes, four of which focus explicitly on mothers: mother-child interaction during infancy; maternal mental illness; maternal education; and maternal anxiety (the other factors involve  structural risks, such as family size and minority ethnic group, and circumstance, such as life events and family support). Mothers have also been blamed for not doing enough to assuage educational disadvantage;  not only do they comprise 40% of the cumulative risk to children, mothers are the key  to protection as ‘maternal resilience’ is identified as most likely to offset risk.

Had I been resilient when my children were young, I asked myself?  Was I emotionally available through those difficult post-diagnosis years?  Did I control my anxiety about the future? Make appropriate demands on my children?  Had I kept my spirits up and sense of identity intact? I couldn’t, in all honesty, answer Yes to any of these questions…

Bettelheim and beyond

Most mothers with a child who has been diagnosed autistic hear about Bruno Bettelheim’s ‘refrigerator mothers’ at some point. Even though we are assured his work is now discredited, for the mother of a newly-diagnosed child it is very difficult to encounter Bettelheim’s claims. I certainly experienced them as cruel following Dylan’s diagnosis: I was doing everything I could to support my child, yet here I was being framed as the problem.

You’d think this was a thing of the past. In recent years, however, a new form of mother blame is gaining currency. Mothers (for it is typically mothers, not fathers) are framed as ‘infantilising’ their autistic children by over-protecting them and failing to recognise them as autonomous individuals. This is a discourse which has emerged in tandem with a commitment to developing independence, an agenda freighted by the voices of self-advocating autistic adults.

Two assumptions seem to be at work here. The first is that a non-autistic mother of an autistic child will necessarily privilege the neurotypical and try to ‘fix her child up’ and/or be over-protective and infantilise her child.  Allied to this is the suggestion that mothers who are not diagnosed as autistic themselves have no right to speak for their autistic children due to their lack of understanding of autism.  A recent blog by Paula Sanchez refers to the “warring factions of ‘autism moms’ and autistic activists”. In the article, Sanchez caricatures a neurotypical  ‘autism mom’ and an ‘autistic mother’:

https://autisticmotherland.com/2018/04/20/from-autism-mom-to-autistic-mother/

Sanchez  urges  ‘autism moms’ to ‘prioritise your child’s autonomy over and above everything else’  and to encourage their autistic identity as part of the process of self-advocacy.  While of the view that non-autistics can probably never understand being autistic, however, Sanchez acknowledges: “it wasn’t working out I’m autistic that influenced my parenting. It was much more that as I became more confident as a parent I became more able to do what my son needed. I no longer felt like I had to perform some idealised version of the ‘good mother’.”

Who speaks?

As the mother of a non-verbal autistic man I find it useful and often illuminating to hear the testimony of autistic adults who self-advocate.  Their voices give me new ways of thinking about Dylan and how he might experience the world. The demand by autistic self-advocates for ‘nothing about us that isn’t by us’, however, challenges parents (such as myself) who advocate for and on behalf of a son or daughter.

Once again I find myself struck by the complexity of the intersection of intellectual disability with autism. As someone who lacks mental capacity, my son is not able to take part in the conversation; not only does he not have a ‘voice’, he is unable to make informed decisions about his life.  As I have argued elsewhere, concepts such as ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy’  take on a different shape when viewed through the lens of intellectual disability.

So who should identify Dylan’s best interests? Who speaks for Dylan and other autistic adults with intellectual disability? Sanchez acknowledges, in the post referred to above, that: “My autism does not give me some special power to intuitively know how to parent and support other people’s autistic children.” The fact I don’t have an autism diagnosis might prevent me from understanding some aspects of Dylan’s experience,  but the deep and enduring relationship I have with him as a mother must surely have heft? And, as I have argued elsewhere, the alternative to advocacy for those with intellectual disability is not self-advocacy, it is silence.

Liminal mothers

Some academics (mothers of disabled children themselves) have questioned the assumptions which have been made about the role of parents in a disabled child’s life. Ferguson (2001) argues that parents carry their child’s impairment as part of their own lived experience and are therefore well placed to advocate for their disabled children and bring about positive change in their lives. Similarly Kelly (2005) observes that parents ‘act as experiencers, interpreters and agents’ through their intimate connection to the experience of their disabled child. Parents’ embodied experience of care-giving is not ‘second-hand knowledge’ of disability, Kelly argues, but rather a ‘partial knowledge’  which allows parents to share some of their child’s experience and meaning-making.

Ryan and Runswick-Cole (2008) have described the position of mothers of disabled children as ‘liminal’, rather than partial. They argue that mothers who are not themselves disabled must operate in a landscape of ‘oppressive mothering ideologies and disabling environments’.  Because of their distance from mothers of non-disabled children, as well as their tenuous position within the disabled community, non-disabled mothers of disabled children occupy a liminal space. Ryan and Runswick-Cole refer to the resulting ‘difficult and contentious debates about the role of non-disabled people within the lives of disabled people’ and the way in which ‘the actions of mothers have been interpreted as constraints within their children’s lives’.

It is interesting that the two concerns highlighted by Ryan and Runswick-Cole  – advocacy and autonomy – are the same as the issues identified in this post, written ten years later. It seems the current wave of mother blame may have been a long time gathering. In their 2008 paper Ryan and Runswick-Cole suggest that one of the reasons mothers might seek diagnostic labels for their children is in order to shift the discourse from ‘mother-blame’ to ‘brain-blame’.  While this may have been the case ten years ago, particularly in relation to autistic spectrum conditions, there has been a significant shift in the discourse to a celebration of neurodiversity and the claiming of autistic neurology as a vital part of self-identity. Against this backdrop, perhaps, there is a tendency to reposition blame (for a perceived lack of independence and the appropriation of voice) with the mother.

Liminal sons and daughters

Although I am uncomfortable with the way in which it is the mother, rather than father, who is subject to surveillance and criticism in relation to the ability to parent a disabled child, I am not averse to critical feedback and scrutiny. I often wish it were kinder, more supportive and more sympathetic. I would also prefer those without experience of parenting (even if they are themselves autistic) to acknowledge their own partial knowledge. Sanchez, in the post referred to above, makes some helpful observations and suggestions for building bridges between the ‘warring factions’ of autism parents and autistic adults.

What is still absent from these conversations, however, is any acknowledgement of autistic adults with intellectual disability. If the position of mothers of disabled children is liminal, then the space occupied by adults with intellectual disability is a similar limbo. As I argue above, the position of autistic adults who lack mental capacity is often unrepresented and overlooked. In challenging the ability of parents to advocate for their disabled sons and daughters, I would argue, we are putting the welfare of adults with intellectual disability at risk.

There is a legal system in the UK for the protection of the financial and welfare interests of those who lack capacity. It is a little-used system and one which is not easily accessed or much discussed.  In the last year, increasingly frustrated by the position of parents in relation to an adult child with an intellectual disability, it has become clear that it is a system I need to engage with.  So, once I’ve finished work and the football is over, my plan is to start the process of applying to the Court of Protection to be Dylan’s Deputy.  More about this in a future post…

Note:

The claims in the section of the post entitled ‘Mother Blame’ are from chapters 8, 9 and 11 of Woolfson (reference below). The images are sourced from the internet and to the best of my knowledge are copyright free. I’ve been unable to identify an artist for the image of the ‘floating woman’ but it was used as part of a lecture series on liminal space by Dr KD Farris. The image of the floating man is ‘Liminal Space’ by Nicholas Scarpinato.

Sources:

Barrett, E. (2017). Tied to the Worldly Work of Writing:  parent as ethnographer. Journal of intellectual Disabilities.  https://doi.org/10.1177/1744629517741008

Ferguson, P.M. (2001). Mapping the Family: Disability studies and the exploration of parental response to disability. In G.L. Albrecht, K.D. Seelman & M. Bury (Eds.), Handbook of Disability Studies (pp. 373-395). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kelly, S.E. (2005). ‘A Different Light’:  Examining Impairment through Parent Narratives of Childhood Disability. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 34, (2) 180-205.

Ryan, S & Runswick-Cole, K (2008). Repositioning mothers:  mothers, disabled children and disability studies. Disability & Society, 23 (3) 199-210

Woolfson, L.M. (2011).  Educational Psychology:  The impact of psychological research on education. Harlow:  Pearson

 

A Room Of My Own

I’ve hesitated to blog about Dylan since my last post, in the spring, because he has been more unsettled and I’ve not been sure what sense to make of it.  Having reflected over the summer, however, I have some tentative observations to share…

Happy Days

While Dylan may have been more unsettled generally, he has continued to enjoy his short breaks and holidays. It is at these times that Dylan is at his calmest and most relaxed (as I suppose is the case for most of us). Since I last blogged about Dylan we have spent time at Spurn Point, where we joined our friends the Corbetts for a Safari, on Anglesey and in Northumberland.

In Northumberland, Dylan particularly enjoyed Alnwick Gardens, with their stunning fountains and cascades, and the gloriously empty Northumbrian beaches and coast path. We had some spectacular walks and a fabulous boat trip around Coquet Island, near to where we were staying. Dylan was calm throughout and happy to accept direction even at times which could have been flashpoints; in Barter Books, for example, he had to be persuaded to reduce his selection of 35 books (!) making what for Dylan were some very difficult choices 🙂  I was impressed by the way Dylan accepted this and moved on from his disappointment. A few years ago, I told myself, there would have been trouble.

Anxious Nights

I very nearly didn’t take Dylan to Northumberland, however.  I had made the booking in the new year, involving Dylan in the selection of the cottage.  Our annual summer holiday is very important to Dylan and (after Christmas) the highlight of his year.  Apart from  the year prior to moving into residential care, when Dylan’s behaviour had been very challenging and I was advised not to take him, Dylan and I have enjoyed a holiday together every year.  So it was with some concern, on the run up to this year’s trip, that I watched as Dylan grew increasingly unsettled.

The incidents being reported by Dylan’s home were not only becoming more regular but more severe.  There are a variety of behaviours but one that has been troubling to witness is the way Dylan breaks the things he loves most at these times.  This is something Dylan does (we think) as a way of managing his emotions. In a sense  it is a positive development in that Dylan now focuses his frustration on objects rather than on people . However, as Dylan typically destroys favourite DVDs and books, the incidents leave him distressed afterwards.

I have spent months re-buying possessions which Dylan has broken, only to see him break them again when he is upset. Recently I have tried not re-buying broken DVDs (Dylan can still access films via his ipad) but this has meant the focus of Dylan’s behaviour switches to other things. I’m not sure this is any better: replacing pyjamas has proved considerably more expensive than re-buying Disney DVDs and far more challenging in terms of maintaining standards of personal care.

It is very difficult to know how to respond to this situation. Clearly these behaviours are functional and Dylan is using them to cope with an anxiety and frustration which we have not yet been able to understand. Various attempts have been made to identify the trigger for these incidents (which almost always happen in the evenings) but so far we haven’t been able to figure out the cause. We have adjusted bedding (is Dylan overheating?); checked that staff are following Dylan’s bedtime routine (is he going twice through his schedule as he likes to?); monitored which DVDs Dylan was watching before an incident (is he getting over-stimulated?); looked ahead at planned activities (is there something scheduled for the next day which is making Dylan anxious?); and checked to see which staff were supporting Dylan (he has his likes and dislikes). None of these have provided a clear answer.

Favourite Things

A couple of nights before we were due to go on holiday there was a major incident. On this occasion Dylan was distressed for a significant period of time and destroyed a number of his things. There had been an incident earlier in the week and I had ordered replacements but they hadn’t yet arrived (this was before I had decided to stop re-buying DVDs).  Dylan must have been frustrated by not being able to work his emotions out on his favourite DVDs so switched his attention to an alternative which, on this particular night, was his Filofax.

Now Dylan loved his Filofax and carried it everywhere – that he would destroy something so precious was shocking. Apart from the physical  effort of tearing through leather and steel I found the emotional significance of what he had done overwhelming. Not realising that Dylan had destroyed his Filofax because he didn’t have access to the DVDs he would normally turn to at these times, and not understanding what was triggering the behaviours, I felt lost without a map.

As Dylan’s weekends at home had continued to be incident-free  I hadn’t been overly anxious about taking him on holiday in the summer but now I doubted my ability to cope. What if Dylan had a major incident while we were away? Would I be able to keep him safe and prevent damage to people and property? Providing I understand the source of Dylan’s anxiety I can respond confidently, but the unpredictability of the situation made me anxious.  It was, I decided, too risky. I telephoned the care home: ‘I don’t think I can take Dylan on holiday’, I said. I collected Dylan from his care home later that day; I would spend some time with him overnight then go away by myself the next day.

The problem next day, however, was that I struggled to pack my bag. How could I go without Dylan? We always spent our summer holiday together. It wasn’t fair that he wouldn’t get to walk the beaches and do all the things which I had told him we would do there. And how would he feel about being left behind? Surely that was likely to make him even more upset? I prevaricated for 24 hours while the holiday cottage I had booked stood empty. Then, the next day, I decided I would risk it. I telephoned the home again: ‘I’m so sorry to mess you around but I think I would like to take Dylan with me after all. Do you think you could help him to pack his bags?’

In the event Dylan was a dream. He was calm and happy all week (even  when the heating in the holiday cottage broke down and we had to manage without hot water for two days).  Potential flashpoints – being overwhelmed by goodies in Barter Books, the bus that failed to turn up – were shrugged off by Dylan with maturity and humour. Spending time with Dylan was a joy…

Precious Space

One of the things which is desperately important to Dylan – and which on this occasion we realised we had got wrong – is that his week must end with a visit home.  I had planned to pick Dylan up en route to the holiday cottage, rather than having Dylan at home the evening before departure, so his weekly programme had ended with a symbol for holiday rather than home.  Although you might think a holiday would be more exciting than a trip home, it may be that Dylan’s distress was triggered by his week not ending where he likes it to.

Although this doesn’t explain the incidents more generally (as Dylan’s programme usually does end with him coming home) it does offer a possible clue as to the source of Dylan’s distress.  Since we returned from our summer holiday it has occurred to me that perhaps what is important about coming home, for Dylan, is the opportunity it gives him to have some peace and quiet. Maybe he looks forward to his visits home not because they involve seeing me (although I’m sure he likes this) but because of the precious space it gives him from other people.

Group Living

Residential homes for adults with complex needs are busy and sometimes chaotic places. Although they are routinised they are also unpredictable environments as the individual needs of residents emerge and require response. For Dylan – who hates noise and has very low tolerance of others – this must be a challenging and sometimes stressful environment.  The mix of residents in a care home is not something any individual has control over – they are a cluster rather than a group – and there will inevitably be clashes of interest and personality.

I had hoped that living in residential care would provide Dylan with opportunities for social and emotional learning, teaching him key skills such as empathy and negotiation in order to live effectively alongside others.  Conscious that Dylan had spent the significant part of his life alone with me, I was attracted by the idea of group living and the possibility that Dylan would enjoy and respond to a livelier home environment than the one I had been able to give him. I even let myself imagine Dylan developing a special relationship – dare I say ‘ friendship’? –  with another resident.

My dream for Dylan probably included a good dose of neurotypical projection; my assumptions about group living, and its potential benefits, were based on my own beliefs and ideas about life as a young adult, rather than viewed through Dylan’s eyes. Recently I’ve realised that the other residents at Dylan’s home are probably nothing more, as far as Dylan is concerned, than an irritation ranging from minor to major proportions.  As a slight irritation they are useful; pairing residents up for outings leads to economies of scale which mean trips can last longer and be to places which are further away and more exciting.  When tolerance levels are low, however, such arrangements are out of the question; even having to share home space, at these times, is a challenge for Dylan.

There have been a number of low level incidents between Dylan and other residents recently which are probably illustrative of Dylan’s need for space.  As a result, Dylan’s programme has been reviewed and his ‘paired activities’ reduced.  Although this means he has fewer ‘big trips’, the impact on Dylan of other residents (and vice versa) is reduced. While it is possible to manage daytime activities in this way, what is perhaps less easy to mitigate are the effects of group living at night.

I don’t know from experience what a care home is like in the evenings because it’s not a time when I visit. It is widely reported, however, to be a period when the ‘institutionalisation’ of residential settings is most obvious. The staffing and environmental pressures tend to be high during the evening; all residents need to be supported with their bedtime routine, often simultaneously and before the arrival of overnight staff. Some residents may have particular anxieties around bedtime, needing  repeated reassurance and the comfort of an individual routine. This is certainly the case for Dylan who expects particular phrases to be spoken, objects to be placed in specific places and bedtime routines (such as going through the next day’s schedule) to be done twice.  Not adhering to his routine makes Dylan anxious and unsettled as, presumably, is the case for other residents.

There will be times, I’m sure, when everyone requires attention at the same time or when one or more of the residents are particularly anxious and need extra support. Responding to  these complex individual needs  must be challenging for staff working in residential settings.  Such evenings will be difficult for residents too; it’s hard waiting for help with something we can’t do for ourselves. Perhaps Dylan’s unsettled evenings are, in  part, a response to the challenge of group living?

A Room Of My Own

My daughter is about to move into shared university housing and I’ve been chatting to her about this over the summer and recalling my own ‘group living’ days. While not wanting to put my daughter off, I couldn’t help but be honest with her the other day: ‘you know what, darling? I hated it.’

Although I appreciated the benefits of my years in shared accommodation, I was relieved when I finally managed to rent a room of my own.  Whatever flexibility and tolerance I may have had in my late teens and early 20s was running out by the middle of the decade; I didn’t want to live with other people’s mess and noise anymore.  I hated getting home to find dirty pots in the kitchen and the sound of a TV or music system booming.  I had learned to live alongside others but I found it stressful; the economic benefits of shared living no longer outweighed the anxiety it provoked.

As I reflected on this I thought about Dylan. I don’t have an autism diagnosis and I found living in shared accommodation difficult – Dylan’s preferences  (keeping windows closed, putting things away as soon as they are used, ensuring nothing is out of place) suggest this is likely to be particularly the case for him.  Certainly Dylan will find noise a challenge; at home, he often asks me to turn off or stop making sound which causes him discomfort or anxiety. The environment is not something Dylan can control in a group living situation, however, and this is no doubt a potential source of stress for him. Even without his complex disabilities,  Dylan’s patience for shared living may be running thin; he is nearly 24, an age at which many young adults start to think about a room of their own.

When Dylan was a small child I assumed he wouldn’t change fundamentally, only grow bigger.  His progress through childhood proved me wrong and his developmental steps – albeit slow and idiosyncratic – surprised and delighted me. The recent developments in Dylan’s behaviour remind me that he will continue to mature as an adult. I hadn’t  previously considered that the type of adult provision Dylan requires might change –  I had assumed the severity of his autism and intellectual disability meant residential care was the only viable option. While residential living is appropriate for Dylan at the moment, now I am wondering if this will always be the case?

A seed has been planted in my mind; perhaps Dylan could live in more independent accommodation, alongside, and as a satellite of, linked residential provision? Dylan will always need 24 hour support and access to specialised care and resources, but the environment through which this is provided could change as Dylan develops. Having to consider what is best for a person who lacks capacity is a burden of responsibility, as well as of love, but  if I were to hazard on what Dylan dreams of, I might say:  ‘A room of my own, one day’…