On good days, it truly is a joy to watch my mother-in-law interact with my daughter. She reads stories to her, bakes cookies with her, and helps to tie up her hair.
On bad days, it sounds more like this:
“Look at me when I talk to you!”
“Sit still and eat!”
“Why don’t you answer me when I call you?”
To those who don’t know any better, my five year old looks distracted, dreamy, and off in her own world. Much like me, when I am engrossed in my latest book, movie or Netflix obsession.
My daughter and I have autism. It is hard for both of us to make eye contact, because it feels too overwhelming. I’ve learned to cope with the discomfort, to mask, and it is still deeply uncomfortable for me. I don’t want my daughter to go through this same experience.
I have tried having direct conversations about my daughter’s struggles, but she says I am making ‘excuses’.
The truth is that my mother-in-law does not accept that her granddaughter has autism. It’s a deeply sensitive topic for her, and unfortunately, there’s nothing my husband and I can do to persuade her otherwise. I have tried having direct conversations about my daughter’s struggles, but she says I am making ‘excuses’. She’s told my husband that all my daughter needs is ‘discipline’. Those heated exchanges only made things worse, so I’ve decided to shelve that approach. Instead, I’m working on cultivating curiosity.
In her experience, autism is something to be feared. Autism is something caused by vaccines. Autism is also something that will give her granddaughter a difficult life. Children with autism also don’t look like her bright, articulate and imaginative granddaughter.
My mother-in-law celebrates my daughter’s deep artistic talent, love for theatrical role play and puppet play. She also she can’t understand my daughter's struggles with impulse control, eye contact, emotional regulation and sensory difficulties. The missing piece is this: it’s her neurological wiring, and the strengths and struggles are different sides of the same coin.
My daughter’s developmental paediatrician suggested that we share pamphlets or websites with my mother-in-law, to help plant the seeds of understanding. My allied health friends who work with families like mine also say that it’s best when a neutral third party gives advice. It’s easier to hear the truth from trained professionals. To her credit, one of my daughter’s therapists spoke to my mother-in-law about how to better communicate with my daughter, and it worked, for a time.
To her credit, one of my daughter’s therapists spoke to my mother-in-law about how to better communicate with my daughter, and it worked, for a time.
My mother-in-law’s own struggles with her mental and physical decline make it harder for her to accept my daughter for who she truly is. It’s harder to replace old parenting paradigms in her old age. Differently wired children require a playful, lighter touch. Traditional parenting does not work for my daughter, the same way it didn’t work for me.
I’ve learned to use the many ups and downs in our lives as learning opportunities for my daughter. I’ve explained that her grandmother loves her, even if she isn’t the easiest to be around sometimes. I encourage my mother-in-law to pay more attention to her ‘easier’ granddaughter, instead of fixating on my oldest daughter.
I’m relieved that my daughter has one playful grandmother. My mother accepts my daughter’s neurological differences. Because of her own journey parenting me, my mother is no stranger to children (and now, grandchildren) who are differently wired. She herself has friends who have autistic children, and she’s now giving me the same support and advice she gave her friends: don’t be ashamed to get help.
What I tell my own daughter is a step beyond that – she is perfectly wired, just the way she is. Her struggles are also her gateway to her strengths, just as they are for me.
Noor Abdul is a freelance writer.