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.