Are Autism Moms Always Right?

mom son get dressed.

"Mothers always know their children best."

"Maternal instinct tells us what our children need."

"No one but Mom should make decisions for an autistic child."

Messages like these are everywhere in the autism world. The basic idea is that mothers of children on the autism spectrum (rarely fathers, acording to this meme) have a special kind of insight that tells them that their child is autistic, why their child is autistic, what it will take to cure their child, and how to obtain whatever is needed to treat and/or ultimately cure their child.


As with almost all myths, there is certainly a grain of truth to the idea that autism moms have the right answers.

It is certainly the case that mothers typically bond very tightly with their very young children. From giving birth to breast feeding to (often) taking months or years off of work to care for their young  child, they are the one individual in the world who knows their baby's quirks inside and out.  If their child has changed (is suddenly losing skills or words, for example), mom will almost certainly be the first to know.

Moms are also expected to be -- and thus usually are -- most involved with their child's outside activities. It's rarely Dad who takes a toddler to aptly named "Mommy and Me" classes, toddler story times at the library, and so forth.  As a result, it's often mom who will first notice a disparity between her child and other toddlers of the same age.

But once mom has noticed that something is up with her child, is she really the best judge of what that "something" is -- or what to do about it?


Unless mom is trained in child development or has significant clinical experience, she is no better equipped than anyone else to actually diagnose her child's issues. Is it autism?  Or is it, perhaps, a hearing loss...  a speech disorder... or a simple delay? 

If the problem is autism, parents may feel that they know the cause.

  In a few instances (fetal alcohol syndrome, exposure to specific drugs in utero, or a history of autism in the family) they may be right.  Most of the time, however, while parents may be absolutely convinced that vaccines, or pesticides, or airborne pollutants, or tuna caused their child's autism -- they are only making a guess. Not even a blood test can tell you for sure that a particular exposure actually caused autism.

Even if mom doesn't know the precise cause of her child's autism, though, doesn't she know what's best for her own offspring?  Shouldn't she be the one to decide which therapies, therapists, schools, and other services are right for her child?

Because she knows her child so well, mom may be best qualified to make certain decisions on behalf of her child. But if she is closed to new insights from non-parents, she may actually be selling her child short.

Yes, mom has seen her child every day for his entire life.  But she has only seen him in the context of family -- and she has only seen him as he relates to her.

  If mom is warm and nurturing, she may assume that only a nurturing, flexible individual can work well with her little one -- but in fact, he may respond even BETTER to an adult who sets rules and high expectations. If mom believes her child needs a great deal of support, she might be surprised to see how well he responds in a structured setting with a clear, dependable schedule.

There's also one other person out there who is likely to know a child with autism better than just about anyone else -- even mom.  Not surprisingly, that person is the child herself!  Like other children, kids with autism have limits; after all, being kids, they may not be aware of their own strengths and limitations.  They certainly don't know much about therapies and entitlement programs. But they do know what they love, what they hate, what's fun, what's hard, and what's easy. And they are better able than anyone else in the world to identify situations, people, and techniques that work well for them.

It's tempting to believe that maternal instinct can trump all other insights. But a mom who closes her mind to other views may be doing her child a disservice.

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