Life-changing milestones of pregnancy and birth are unpredictable and demanding enough without the additional sensory and communication differences associated with autism; but with the right support autistic mothers can flourish and enjoy parenting with an insight like no other.

Sarah Hampton, a researcher at the Autism Research Centre, at the University of Cambridge, explores this relatively over-looked issue of the mental health and well-being of autistic mothers.

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Pregnancy is all about change, and on a significant level. From hormones and blood pressure to weight gain and stretch marks, every pregnant person will wonder mostly in awe at the capabilities of the body during this transformative time. However, these changes – both physical and emotional - can be more poignant as well as alarming for a mother who is autistic.

Throughout Sarah’s research she has spoken to many autistic and non-autistic women about their experiences of pregnancy and motherhood.

A heightened experience for autistic mothers

Feedback suggests that sensory hyper-sensitivity (already a common trait for people across the autism spectrum) can be heightened for autistic women in pregnancy. The senses of light, sound and touch, often already uncomfortably sharp when not pregnant, can become more frequently overwhelming.

Linked to these physical effects, the emotional impact of pregnancy is enormous. Feeling listened to, supported and understood during this challenging time, can deeply affect the wellbeing of a mother, and the overall experience of parenthood.

Unfortunately, there can be a lack of autism awareness among healthcare professionals. 

To disclose or not to disclose a diagnosis?

Disclosing an autism diagnosis can be helpful in some cases. Depending on their autism experience and knowledge, doctors and midwives can adjust the care of the mother, perhaps in terms of how they communicate or make the person feel more at ease during appointments and check-ups.

However, in a lot of cases, disclosing their autism may not be a tempting proposition. Many autistic people feel their diagnosis may be judged negatively and in extreme situations, some have even worried about having their baby taken away.

Autistic mothers can often feel not listened to or misunderstood. They can feel that their healthcare provider does not know much about the condition of autism at all, let alone how it might manifest in pregnant women.

The vital role of health professionals

It is integral that doctors, nurses, midwives all understand autism – the basic facts of the condition as well as how pregnancy plays its part. The adaptations that can be made need not even be dramatic, sometimes as subtle as ensuring the person feels calm and at ease during appointments, providing information in a clear, direct and factual manner, and allowing time for that information to be processed (perhaps giving it in writing to take away and digest).

Advantages of being an autistic mother

Crucially, however, the feedback shows us that the right support can free and empower autistic mothers; these women can apply common autistic traits to achieve a positive and valuable insight into parenting, that often goes deeper than average. 

For example, a key character trait in autism is the ability to focus, to make something/someone a ‘special interest’. Likewise, the new baby becomes this special interest; its safety, comfort and upbringing is the ultimate priority. Particularly for autistic women, there may be a drive to research parenting in finite detail, build their confidence to allow them to be led by maternal instincts, and give them the strength to challenge doctors or midwives instead of assuming they know best at the risk of something serious being overlooked. With the correct understanding of autism, there is reduced chance of a hyper-focused attitude being misunderstood by the medical professional.

Also, perhaps due to their own feelings of being misunderstood, comes the dedication of the autistic mother to understand and read their babies’ behaviours with the upmost patience and compassion; and as their children grow, instead of dismissing them as naughty for example, take the time to learn what is making them say or do something.

The heightened senses in autism also come full circle and can be naturally healing and helpful when it comes to responding to the child’s cries and insecurities. The senses of sound and touch can be so acute that the innate parental reaction to soothe is even more powerful.

What we can learn from this

In talking to these women, we learn ultimately that there can be a desperate ignorance and/or misunderstanding of autism within the healthcare sector. Women can be at their most vulnerable during pregnancy or when caring for a new-born, and misjudgements, dismissed concerns, or conclusions being jumped upon impetuously can be catastrophic for both the mental health of these women but also for the wider family situation. It is crucial that medical and healthcare professionals are more aware of autism so that disclosing the condition is not a risk or obstacle but instead will automatically and rightly open doors to empathy and support.

 

More awareness is needed about how autistic people perceive the world - and more research is needed to better support autistic mothers during pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood.

Of course, in order for more research to happen, we need more funding. If you wish to support more research like this, and help us find tangible solutions that can help autistic mothers, please donate to ART today. Every penny counts. 

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Sarah Hampton is a postdoctoral researcher at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge. Her research used both quantitative and qualitative methods to explore how autistic mothers experience pregnancy, childbirth and the postnatal period. Learn more about Sarah here.