Autism and maternal self-blame


I’m currently reading a widely praised book on raising children who are very different from their parents. The book is Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. It’s about one of the most challenging aspects of parenting, recognizing that your child is not you and that’s okay. The task is made far more difficult when the child differs from you in major ways: children who are deaf, autistic, transgender, etc.

One aspect common to parenting children with major differences is self-blame, at least in the early stages.

Solomon writes:

…The attribution of responsibility to parents is often a function of ignorance, but it also reflects our anxious belief that we control our own destinies. Unfortunately, it does not save anyone’s children; it only destroys some people’s parents, who either crumble under the strain of undue censure or rush to blame themselves before anyone else has time to accuse them… Many parents … organize their guilt around some fictitious misstep. I had lunch one afternoon with a highly educated activist whose son suffers from severe autism. “It’s because I went skiing while I was pregnant,” she said to me. “The altitude isn’t good for the developing child.” I felt so sad hearing this. The roots of autism are confusing, and there are questions as to what may dispose children toward the condition, but altitude is not on the list. This intelligent woman had so assimilated a narrative of self-blame that she didn’t know that it had come out of her imagination.

It is quite startlingly how desperately parents, particularly mothers, try to blame themselves for their child’s autism. How I Gave My Son Autism is a horrifying example of this narrative of maternal self blame.

I am admitting here for all the world to see: I gave my son Autism. I did it. Me. And no one can ever take that away.

So . . . how did I give my son autism? I wish I could say it was one thing – one thing that I could take back that would make things neat and easy, but it wasn’t. It was mistake after mistake, assault after assault. The following are the biggest mistakes I made to which I attribute my son’s descent into autism…

The list of the mother’s supposed transgressions is mind boggling:

  • Ultrasound
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Tylenol
  • Pitocin
  • C-section
  • Antibiotics
  • Vaccines
  • Flouride

For example:

I had at least five while I was pregnant. I was assured that they were completely safe. Heck, you can get them in malls, so I assumed they were pretty benign. Wrong! While I didn’t get ultrasounds in malls, I didn’t research them either. Ultrasounds have, in fact, been implicated in autism among other neurological disorders…

No it hasn’t. There is no scientific evidence for ANY of the supposed transgressions on this list as a cause of autism, but then there is no evidence that altitude is a cause of autism, either, yet that didn’t stop the mother in Solomon’s example from invoking it.

The mother declares:

I am already anticipating three different responses to this post:

Response 1) There will be people who read this and think, “Good grief, woman. How stupid can you be? What you did borders on child abuse. OF COURSE your child has Autism.” And to that, I have no argument. You are absolutely right. And good for you for knowing better than I did.

Response 2) Some of you will read this and know exactly how I feel because your story is very similar. To all of you, you have my deepest, heartfelt sympathy. While we will always have our mistakes to live with, the best thing we can do now is to share our truth and our story to help others.

Response 3) There will be people who feel pity for me because I have not been able to make peace with myself for my role in my son’s health crisis. You will feel compelled to reach out to me with kind messages imploring me to forgive myself. Please . . . don’t. It won’t do any good. I am not fishing for forgiveness, and while I know you mean well, it won’t help me… No child should have to endure what mine has endured. No mother should ever have to experience the kind of torturous guilt I live with every day.

This is the flip side of magical thinking so integral to natural childbirth, attachment parenting and vaccine rejection. If what you think and do has the power to keep your child safe, it follows that if your child has an affliction, it must be your fault. Indeed it is easier for mothers to blame themselves than to acknowledge the frightening reality; autism is basically random, due to genetics and can’t be prevented.

Apparently it is better to be powerful and wrong than to be utterly powerless in controlling our children’s destinies.