The Mighty Logo

I Asked if I Failed Her by Spending More Time With My Son With Autism

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a manual with the exact instructions on how to be an awesome parent? Better yet, I wish there were a parenting college major, and when you earned your degree, you had all the answers. Instead, you run on gut instinct, do the best you can and hope that you’ll raise loving and compassionate human beings.

Throw a child with autism into the mix and the job of parenting can become even more challenging. How do you care for that child and also do right by your other children who do not have special needs?

My child-raising years are complete, but being a parent never really ends. From this new vantage point, my husband and I can see the fruits of our labor in both of our adult children, Molly and Jonathan. 

I was curious to find out my daughter’s perspective on growing up. How did I do as a mother? What does she think about having a brother on the spectrum? And did I fail her as a mother by spending more time on her brother? I thought I’d just come out and ask her, and here’s what she had to say:

How did I do as a mom?

Molly: Well, you’re fabulous. I always have an exceptional role model in you. You follow where your heart takes you, even when the path it takes you down is more challenging. You are communicative, honest and you listen. You’re our mother, friend, advocate, confidante and biggest fan.

What’s it like to have a brother on the autism spectrum?

Molly: It’s a fairly normal sibling relationship, but there are times when I look at other siblings and their interactions that make autism feel like an enormous wall between Jonathan and me.

Autism changes the way you communicate, and the dynamics between people that are usually a given are not necessarily applicable to someone on the spectrum. I’ve learned how to meet Jonathan where he is, and to know that in his own way, he is very present to me as my brother and friend, even if there are times when that doesn’t seem true. And beyond that, it’s exceptional to have a brother on the spectrum. It gives me a lot of permission to think differently, reach out to people and community more openly, and practice compassion and acceptance.

When we were kids running around the house, pretending to be superheroes and ninja turtles, our connection was constant. We’ve always met in a place of creativity and imagination. And now we are learning how to access that space as adults. I would say rather successfully.

Jonathan did take more of my time, but I think I was there for you when you needed me. What were some of the things I did for you that really helped?

Molly: You always listened. Everything I had to say mattered. I was heard. Both Jonathan and I have different ways of expressing who we are, and those ways were encouraged in us, even if they were off the beaten path. We were treated as individuals with things to say that mattered, and we were encouraged to say them in the ways that meant the most to us.

I’m a very introverted person who prefers to share myself through music or plays about strange characters or by diving into some kind of creative world. Growing up and even now, that way of expression has been valued. That’s helped me learn how to embrace who I am and extend that value to other people in my life. And I think the same is true of Jonathan.

Did I fail you as a parent by spending more time with Jonathan?

Molly: No, you didn’t fail me as a parent. Parents aren’t perfect all-knowing humans. They make mistakes like anyone else as far as I can tell. If there is unconditional love, support, honesty and openness that runs underneath the decisions and interactions between parents and kids, then it is very difficult to consider anything a failure. And with you, there was always unconditional love, support, honesty and openness.

If you had a chance to speak to parents who have a child on the autism spectrum and one (or more) who do not, what would you say to them?

Molly: Let your kids be dreamers; let them dream big. Help them cultivate a spirit and drive that just won’t quit. Let them live their truth, even if their truth wasn’t what you planned or imagined. Chances are by meeting them in their place of truth, they will become people who are even more extraordinary, surprising and lovely than a person could ever plan for or imagine.

But I’m no parent. I’m just lucky enough to have great role models in you and Dad. I watched you tell my brother, autism and all, to dream big and to never feel less than. And Jonathan is one of the most extraordinary, surprising and lovely human beings I know.

What would you like to say to the siblings?

Molly: If you’re open to it, having a brother or sister on the spectrum will give you a crash course in seeing the world in a whole different way: a way of deep compassion, acceptance and openness. We have a really exceptional opportunity to understand and appreciate the incredible things that someone who thinks, engages and interacts with the world differently contributes to our lives and the lives of others. I am a better person for knowing and growing up with Jonathan. He teaches me about strength, kindness, fun and openness everyday.

It may not feel like this all of the time as a sibling to someone on the spectrum, but trust me on this one: We are so unbelievably lucky.

Thank you for sharing, Molly. I am so proud of who you are and I am so blessed to be your mother. 

The Mighty wants to hear more about relationships and special needs parenting. Can you share a moment on your special needs journey that strengthened your relationship? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

Want to end the stigma around disability? Like us on Facebook.

And sign up for what we hope will be your favorite thing to read at night.

Originally published: May 18, 2015
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home