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  • Sarah Nannery

Book Nook: Pretending to be Normal

I'm reading Liane Holliday Willey's memoir Pretending to be Normal again! What a treat. I wanted to highlight it for you with some of the valuable insights I gained in absorbing Liane's words and sharing some of her experiences.

Adult Diagnosis -- First Comes the Child

Liane, like many other adult women these days, did not discover her own ASD until her daughter began to show signs.

This is similar to what happened to me. With my son exhibiting some of the same challenges I had learned to cope with at a young age, we finally began to open the door to the possibility that he and I both might be on the spectrum. I have heard and read and seen this happen to many, many other parents of children who are struggling to conform to mainstream standards of behavior and learning.

Liane describes how for her, it felt like coming home: watching her daughter go through the assessments and uncover very specific differences that Liane shared in contextual extrapolation, social pragmatics, flexible thinking, etc. A very important note to make here is that, at the same time it felt like coming home for Liane, it felt like a bereavement for her neurotypical husband. He cried for his daughter's suffering, while Liane rejoiced in hers and her daughter's validation.

This was a poignant moment for me in the book, as my husband is also neurotypical, and I am very sensitive to this fine line we both walk between grieving a life that will never be - a life untouched by autism - and celebrating the incredible life that we have, in many ways because of the autism.

Would life be simpler without ASD in our family? Perhaps. But would we be us? No way.

We can be both sad and happy in the same moment - coming home to our own definition of "normal," while at the same time knowing that it will always be different than most other families' definitions of "normal."

Spectrum Parenting

Being the parent of an autistic child is one thing. Being the autistic parent of any child (autistic or not) is a-whole-nother thing.

Who's Parenting Who?

Liane describes how she felt the roles of "parent" and "child" reverse many times as her children grew older and began to develop their own sense of the world. She writes about her neurotypical daughters helping her navigate social and sensory-overloading situations much like parents might help a child. And how, despite it not being the ideal that she might have envisioned for her life as a mother, this balance has worked for them. She lost no respect or dignity in accepting the help of her children when she needed it - in fact, her honesty and humility is what made all the difference.

"I used to hope that I would be able to give my children my best side at all times. I wanted them to look to me as a role model they could rely on, as a mom who showed them which steps to avoid and which way to march...
...I have learned to accept the fact that I will make mistakes at nearly every turn, but that those mistakes can be softened if I am honest about who I am to my girls...
...I am happy with that because there is so much to be learned from that perspective.
If I can show them it is okay to make mistakes and that perfection is not a key to happiness, I will have given them self-acceptance. If I can teach them tenacity and courage in the face of confusion and doubt, I will have given them the will to achieve. If I can show them individuality and freedom of expression are prizes worth fighting for, I will have given them the chance to find themselves. And if, after growing up with me by their side, they learn the importance of acceptance and compassion, then I will have taught them tolerance.
If all these things are to be part of who they are, then I will have been a good role model after all. I will have helped them to find goodness in all people and peace in themselves."

Follow the Leader

Another thing Liane mentions is her ASD-linked lack of ability to generalize from one context to another, and how that effects her overall efficiency as a parent.

I feel this SO MUCH, because kids change and grow every day, and, like Liane says, each new change resets my entire reality and I have to start from scratch trying to figure out what to do and how to move forward.

This is largely due to something called "lack of central coherence," commonly occurring with autism. Basically, it means I either over-generalize or under-generalize a lot - it's hard for me to find the right balance. I find it very difficult to take Skill A learned in Context B and apply it to Context C. Instead I have to learn Skill A again but within Context C. So I always feel like I'm a step behind most everybody else.

Add kids to the mix, and I'm way behind both of them!

But even though I might not keep up with every change, I can learn quickly once I realize I've been left behind. I make up for under generalizing with 30 years of learned knowledge and experience that - for now - gives me a wide enough margin of error to keep me ahead in other ways.

Life Goes On

Liane also says something that resonates very deeply with me:

Life goes on for we parents with Autism no matter how many times we we ask ourselves what just happened or what could we have done differently.

Oh, so many times I am left thinking "what just happened?" or "how could I have done that differently?"

Because I want and need so much to analyze my surroundings in order to understand how to move forward - I need data, data, data. And children offer endless data - but that's just it - it's endless. There is never time to analyze all of it, and there never will be.

I just have to learn to move forward without coalescing all the data, knowing that acting on what little data I have coupled with my instinct as a mother - even (and perhaps especially) as a mother with autism - will just have to be enough.

Pretending to be Normal

Liane's book offers an insider view of life as a woman and mother with autism. I very much enjoyed reading it, and feeling less alone. Please check it out if you haven't already!

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