Put Compassion First: An Interview With Autism Parent Brenda Rothman
Brenda Rothman is a refreshing source of compassion and practical advice in the autism parenting online world. I frequently check in with her blog, Mama Be Good, for ideas about fostering healthy family relationships, encouraging understanding, and nurturing both parent and child. I spoke with Brenda about how she came to be the parent she is now, some of her inspirations, and what she most wants parents new to autism to know.
Shannon: Can you share some of what you like people to know about your family?
Brenda: Sure. My son Jack is nine-years-old and my only child. When he was born, he had a serious illness that was nearly fatal. That experience, as awful as it was, set the bar for me to be thankful for every single day, no matter what. By the time my son was diagnosed with autism at three-and-half-years old, he had already gone through early intervention. I knew as much as anyone about therapies at that point, but I really knew nothing about autism. After his diagnosis, I stayed at home, played, connected, and unschooled with my son for nine years, until this year, when he was ready to attend a play-based, interest-centered school.
Shannon: What motivates you to share your parenting insights with your readers?
Brenda: I see so many parents struggling with their concepts of autism, with managing daily interactions and family dynamics, and with their fears, hopes, and worries about their children. I don't think I am doing this parenting thing better than other parents, but I do think I can help parents reframe their concepts of autism and parenting in a way that will help bring them and their children more peace, fewer struggles, and more laughter.
Shannon: Has your writing about parenting, and parenting autistic children, changed over time? How?
Brenda:: Oh, it definitely has, and I think you, Shannon, and many more in our circle have witnessed those changes over the years. I think I would be worried if I wasn't changing because I wouldn't be learning.
When I started writing, I wanted to share stories about Jack—what he did, what he said, what I thought. I'm glad I did because I have preserved so those early days, the adorable things he's said and done (Me: "You can smell the paper factory from here, Jack, but you can't see it." Jack: "Maybe it's inbisible!"), his interests, and my emotions. My writing then grew to include more activism—exploring disability, discrimination, autistic voices, and the ways that autism is portrayed in the public sphere. And now I'm reaching out with ways to approach parenting and autism that reflect what I've learned from all that—from my child, from activism, from my experiences, and from autistic adults.
My approach to parenting has remained the same and even solidified. Before being a parent, I knew only behavioral approaches like "cry it out" and authoritarian strategies like "it was good enough for me." After having my child, I felt in my heart that these approaches were not helpful and did nothing to strengthen me, my relationship, or my child. They made me feel awful. So I stopped what I was doing and started listening to my heart, believing in my intuition, finding what my child needed to be comfortable, secure, and happy. Now, I feel validated by experts whose books and approaches mirror mine, those on parenting such as Gordon Neufeld, Larry Cohen, and Edward Hollowell; on education, like John Holt; and even mindfulness experts like Sylvia Boorstein, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Daniel Siegel.
Shannon: Compassion is a unifying theme in your writing. Is this an active or natural choice, or both?
Brenda: Both, definitely. I am lucky to have a strong intuition about how people feel and also a strong feeling of compassion for those in need. So, one day when Jack was still a toddler, I remember sitting in my living room on the rug, playing with him. He got frustrated at something he couldn't do and I tried to help him, which made him really mad at me. I thought, You're mad at me and I'm trying to help you?! My anger rose up so fast, it nearly made my head explode. Helpful, right? I had to sit there with myself for a good long time and think about this. Here I was the grown-up in the room getting angry at a baby. Seriously angry. If I can get that mad at a baby, how am I going to handle the really hard stuff? That's when I realized that so many of my parenting challenges, and other peoples' parenting challenges, were really how we react to our children—their challenges, their difficulties, their emotions—and not a direct result of who our children are. That's when I went back to the mindfulness books I had read. I figured out that compassion was key—I needed compassion to deal with my own feelings and to guide my parenting. I needed compassion to understand my child's perceptions and disability. And he needed me to model compassion to deal with his own emotions. I discovered that those skills I had naturally—my intuition about people's emotions and my compassion—were critical for parenting. And I think that's something we've lost in the all the parenting and autism advice we see today.
Shannon: Do you look to specific parents or autistic people as writing models, or for inspiration and mentoring?
Brenda: Absolutely. The books and authors I mentioned above were key for me to understand the foundations of being human, of mindfulness, and of parenting. I also have a circle of autistic friends whom I value and turn to for wisdom, for help, and for input. I have to call out one in particular because she's been so much help to me personally: Elizabeth "Ibby" Grace. I am forever thankful to her and to all my autistic friends, including Bridget, Kassiane, Nick, Alyssa, chavisory, Amy, Michael, Landon, and many, many more that I fear I'm forgetting to name. There are many parents of autistic children like you, Ariane, Heather, Michelle, and Leah who I look to for online support. And I have a close circle of IRL friends who are parents of autistic children who consistently listen to me, feed my soul, and dance with me.
Shannon: When a parent new to autism asks for your advice, what do you most want to tell them?
Brenda: I think my experience is much like many other parents—we had no experience of autism or disability in our past. Our first introduction is delivered by the medical community. Unfortunately, the message we get is one of that contains only the deficits and delays of autism, rather than the reality of both strengths and challenges. We get an unbalanced message that emphasizes the difficulties and focuses on therapies, rather than the pros/cons of autism and guidance on how to develop a relationship with our children. It is deeply unfair to parents and to autistic individuals that we are not presented with the same opportunities as other families—of developing trusting, deep connections with our children, of hours of playful interactions, of an enchanted childhood—merely because they have been diagnosed with autism. And the reason we are not being presented with that information is because the emphasis is on deficits and correction, rather than on the whole person and connections.
So to parents who are new to autism, I want to emphasize that autism is a different way of processing. It is not a behavioral problem. Autism is a way that a way that the brain receives, processes, and responds to information. The way an autistic individual behaves or reacts may seem different to us, but their actions are often tools to help them process, soothe, integrate, or enjoy their experiences. Parents need to know that the best thing they can do for their child is the solid foundation of a relationship. Connecting through laughter, play, interests, hanging out, making silly noises, just being with each other may seem frivolous to parents who are worried for their child's future. But those fears often prevent us from giving our children what they most need the most: the connection to us, the relationship, the foundation that will answer their most basic, most critical questions: "Am I safe?" and "Do You Like Me?"
Shannon: Most who write publicly about autism eventually have to manage conflicting opinions between their readers. Have you been able to find reasonable strategies for conflict resolution?
Brenda: We don't all agree on the details of how we raise, educate, or support autistic children and I think that's natural considering how many misconceptions there are about autism and how well we know or listen to autistic people. So there may be many details that we disagree on. But we always have common ground as people. We all want to belong. We all want to feel accepted. We all want to be heard and understood. We can help each other—parents and autistic people. I feel very lucky to have people in my life and a community who work towards that—even when we disagree in the details—who want to help raise the bar for how autistic people are treated and how we as humans treat each other.
Shannon: Can you give examples of what you consider effective approaches to countering misconceptions about autism, parenting autistic children, and autistic people?
Brenda: I think what I've learned through my journey in public writing and a very public learning curve is that I provide more help to parents and to autistic people when I speak about compassion. When I point out the light and say isn't that beautiful, it's more helpful than berating people about the darkness. I'm not saying anger or sadness isn't valid. It is certainly valid for autistic individuals to be angry about prejudice or mistreatment, for instance. It's not my job to police emotions. But how we perceive autism, how we conceptualize a life of value, how we frame success or happiness, how we approach parenting—those are things we really do want help with. I know I'm always looking for ideas. If we say, hey, I have this idea about how to help reduce those areas of friction between you and your child—or your partner, your co-worker—and I was wondering if you'd want to hear it, we can all use that kind of support. It's all about connecting with each other.