Why My Autistic Mum Is the Best Parent I Could Ever Hope For

Last week my state had the “Woman of the Year” awards. It was a great honor to be at the awards ceremony as a finalist. I was nominated due to the work I do around autism advocacy in the local and wider community. There were politicians and notable people in attendance. I was accompanied by two friends and the most important person in my life, my mum.

My mum was delighted to share the awards night with me, but her parental pride might have a darker origin than that of many parents. My teen years and 20s were hell for my family. I made poor choices over and over again and was incredibly self-destructive. At times, I lost contact with my parents and they assumed I had died.

My mum gained her own autism diagnosis just a few years ago as an older adult. My mum’s diagnosis helped both of us understand our own lives and our relationship as mother and daughter.

When I was about 5, I went to a therapist because I was aggressive at school. I struggled with change and the unpredictability of other kids, so I responded by hitting as I didn’t know what else to do. My understanding (which may be wrong — I was 5 after all), was that the therapist suggested to my mum that maybe I was an atypical autistic person. I don’t believe this was investigated any further. I don’t quite know the reasoning but in the 1970s the prevailing view from clinicians was that autism was caused by cold-hearted “refrigerator mothers.” I can imagine how my mum wanted to steer clear of that accusation. I feel we were a quirky family but largely happy when I was little, but my parents’ unconventional parenting style was viewed dimly by those judgmental types who think it’s OK to give unhelpful and unsolicited advice to people.

In fact, I don’t believe there was much reason to judge my parents. They did some things well, others not so well and they did the best they could — like many other parents do. When I was a troubled teenager, I remember talking to my mum almost every day while she was ironing. No topic was barred. I could say or ask anything of my mum and she would respond with a loving, respectful answer. She was there for me even in the darkest places, when I was a prisoner both in the physical and emotional sense. She never let go of me and she never stopped loving me, even when it must have been difficult. Her love has always been this tangible thing, like another character in our shared story.

As I have changed my life over the past 17 years and gone from desperate to respected, my mum and her love have been there at every step.

In conventional terms, my mum is probably an atypical parent. She did a lot of things some people might think were a little odd — we used the same piece of plastic wrap on our sandwiches at school all week because of my mum’s respect for the environment, and if I was sad she would read to me from the Book of Revelation in the Bible. But she was the best mum and we were quirky and different together — as we still are.

Having my mum in the audience at the awards night last week was pretty special for us both. I kept wishing people from the past who criticized her would come up and say she must in fact be a great mum to raise a finalist for “Woman of the Year.” I didn’t win the award, but I got a bigger prize through my mum being there, and both of us getting to enjoy our respective successes.

Jeanette Purkis and her mum at the Woman of the Year awards

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