Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Perfect Mother For An Aspie

Those of you who know me through Facebook will know that my mother passed away recently. It's been a great loss to me and my family, she was our gentle matriarch, our anchor, our centre and guiding light. But much of our grieving is a private thing, and it's not that I want to talk about, but rather about how she was as the mother of an aspie.

When I was a child, my mother, in an era when autism was barely heard of and Aspergers never heard of at all, seemed to recognise that I needed a little extra help with life, and it was just instinctive to her to give it. She guided, helped and supported me right all through my life, long before either of us knew about my Aspergers. Right up till the end, for instance, even after spending decades learning how to read people, I would still often turn to her to check on my perceptions, asking her things like "Did So-and-so seem __ to you?", and she'd say "no, I don't think so", or "Oh, yes, was she ever!", and so on. I'd ask her how to go about things, and she'd give me advice, in the calm, thoughtful manner that was typical of her.

In fact Mum was always very even-tempered, I rarely heard her raise her voice, except perhaps to call to someone in another room. She did get angry now and again - her lips would press tight and her eyes flash, signals even as a child I was able to recognise! But I don't think I ever saw her totally lose her cool. This composure helped me in turn, when I got agitated about 'little' things. Throughout my life, she was able to calm me down and prevent an incipient meltdown simply with a few quietly reassuring words and a pat on the shoulder or back, etc. She never assaulted my ears by yelling, and was always willing to adjust things to my sensory needs whenever reasonably possible.

My mum was intelligent but never intellectual, she operated from the heart far more than the head. This was a much-needed counterweight to my tendency to go off too much into my head - and though I never thought about it consciously at the time, I'm sure she influenced my realisation, in my late 20s, that the best path for me was a balance of heart and head.

She helped me in practical ways too. When I first learnt to drive, for instance, I was very nervous of driving at higher speeds, and when we went on long trips together she'd wait till we got somewhere less busy and then get me to drive, giving me patient advice like "it's best if you keep an even speed", or "turn the wheel more gently". I remember one day she reached over and patted my hand, and said "relax your hands, Pen, you don't need to grip so hard," and I realised I was clutching the steering wheel like it was a life raft and I was drowning! Like many aspies, I have my difficulties with driving, but I definitely became less tense and more skilled as a driver, thanks to her quiet help.

She was also a role model for me in many ways. While, like many on the spectrum, I've always had trouble expressing (NOT feeling!) qualities such as empathy, a lot of what I have learnt to do is through following my mother's example. Her entire life was centered around caring for people and helping them, particularly family, but also anyone else in need she encountered. She would always lend a compassionate ear to other's woes, as long as she felt they were genuine. Her generosity was legendary, and I was a frequent recipient of it. Her paid work was always in one helping profession or another and she was involved in a long list of charities over the years. She never made a big deal out of it, or indeed about any of her values and beliefs, rather she simply lived them. I absorbed much of this, at first without consciously realising it. Like her, I believe in helping others, and in doing my bit to make the world a slightly better place, even if the way I do it is different.

She also modelled courage and determination. After years of enduring an increasingly unhappy marriage to my father, in her middle years she divorced him, a thing almost unheard of for women of her generation and background, and launched into a new career as a social worker, making new friends, travelling the world (my mother saw much more of the world than I have!) and having all sorts of adventures. She even went paragliding - at eighty!! Many a time I've thought "well, if my mother can do 'x' at her age, I can do such-and-such at mine!"

Mum was always willing to try something new, find out new things. I know that if she and I were fifty years younger today, or if the diagnoses and information that's there now was around when I was a child, that she would have been researching and reading everything she could on autism and Aspergers. As it was, if she saw a magazine article or TV program about autism, she would always point out them out to me, and ask what I thought of them. She read my blog whenever I showed it to her (the Internet was always something of a mystery to her, tech-savvy she was not!), and was really supportive and interested in the column about disability issues I recently started in the local paper. She sometimes asked me how I perceived something, or why I had difficulty with something. Though she sometimes had difficulty understanding me, she always tried to, she always kept an open mind.

Despite all this, in her final illness, Mum said to me that she'd sometimes felt "helpless", to know how best to help me with my AS. I said to her that she didn't need to have done anything, that simply being herself was enough. We were interrupted then, and I never got back to the subject, but I would have gone on to tell her just how grateful I was for her total acceptance of me as I am. She told me once that when I was a child, yes, I had my "funny little ways", but "that was just you, it was just how you were, all my children had different personalities, I never thought twice about it." So much so in fact that when I first told her I suspected I had AS, she pooh-poohed it, even laughed. But then, ever open to new ideas and listening to people, she stopped and asked me why I felt that way. So I explained, and she listened, and finally said, "well, it doesn't matter, you're still my daughter and I still love you." And gave me a huge hug! I wish that I'd been able to tell her just how much that meant to me.

My being "different" never seemed to bother her. She teased me sometimes, true, but it was always done with affection, and that total acceptance. One of the final things she said to us was "no judgement, don't judge people". I never saw her judging people because of race, gender, sexuality, religion, disability or whatever. Family meant everything to Mum, and she also gave me the gift of a loving, extended family, always fostering my connections to them, drawing me into the circle, even when my social skills were pretty minimal.

Perhaps most importantly of all, I felt safe with my mother. When I was a child, she provided clear structures and routines, with fairly simple rules and expectations, yet all of it practised with love and patience. And throughout my life, I knew that I'd always have a place to stay with her if I needed one. I will miss many, many things about my mother, from the companionable dinners eating fried rice in front of the TV (often followed by 'naughty' chocolate!) to her wicked sense of humour, from her gentle wisdom to the trips we took together, and much more, but I think possibly I will miss that feeling of safety most of all. I don't know that I'll ever have that again.

For an aspie of my generation - indeed, any generation - she was the best mum ever. I wish that all autistics could have a mother like mine.

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