For years, I was sure it was my fault. As a teacher for children with special needs, I should have realized my son had autism. But I finally let go of my guilt.

Mother with Child holding greeting card with heart
Credit: Illustration by Nathalie Dion

When my son was in fifth grade, he had a difficult year, another in a long line of difficult years. A therapist recommended an evaluation by a neuropsychologist, and we suspected he had learning disabilities. But when the doctor opened the thick manila folder in front of her, my eyes landed on the word autism. My son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Although he was high-functioning, it was affecting his social skills as well as his ability to learn in traditional ways.

I was devastated. You see, before becoming a mother to my three sons, I had been a kindergarten teacher who taught kids with special needs, including many with autism. I wasn’t devastated because my son was on the spectrum. I was devastated I hadn’t caught it earlier.

For months, I combed through my mind, recalling conversations with teachers, interactions with other children, my own memories of raising him. I went through report cards, portfolios, and any snippet I’d kept of a note sent home. On a good day, I was looking for proof that the diagnosis was correct. On a bad day, I felt a sense of loss I couldn’t explain. I’d remember all the times an “expert” didn’t notice my son was having trouble. I was angry at those kind teachers with their compliments and praise. I knew firsthand that early intervention could improve communication, relationships, and learning for kids on the autism spectrum, and I felt like my son had been robbed of that opportunity. 

So I disappeared down a black hole for the better part of a year, focusing on every way I had screwed up. I dwelled on the theories about the causes of autism. Mothers who suffered trauma during the second trimester? Well, I’d experienced a major depressive episode while I was pregnant with my son. Mothers who took antidepressants in pregnancy? Yes, to treat my illness. Never mind that these causes were tossed around as possibilities, not truths. I decided that all his difficulties could be traced back to me. What I had done. What I had taken. Who I was.

Well-meaning friends, colleagues, relatives, doctors, and even my husband told me, “He’s still the same boy.” But through the haze of my guilt and self-loathing, I couldn’t even see him anymore. I moved through the squares on the board, meeting with teachers and more evaluators.

Slowly, he found successes, and we celebrated things that most parents see as non-events, such as reading social cues and understanding the nuances of communication with his peers.

When he was 11, his teacher organized a secret gift exchange for the class. My boy was full of love but short on organization and time-management skills. The day came to present gifts to his classmate, and he forgot. He stood in front of the class and gave her a teary apology. When he told me about it, my heart broke for him, but I felt a spark of relief—because he desperately wanted to make it right. I suggested a dozen giant chocolate-chip cookies for her the next day, and we baked them together. And he included a laboriously handwritten note about what he appreciated about her.

Academically, he also discovered his niche: a great curiosity and talent for understanding history. When he got his first A+, on an essay about ancient China that his teacher said was the best he’d ever read, it brought tears to my eyes.

In seventh grade, he had the best school year of his life. I was reassured by small milestones: his first “girlfriend,” joining a club, invitations to sleepovers, his heartache about hurting someone’s feelings without meaning to. I could finally see what people had been telling me—he was still the same boy. All those social and emotional skills I’d been teaching him since he was a toddler, they’d just taken longer to bloom. The boy standing in front of me was who he was not in spite of my mothering, but because of it.

I realized that it was time to forgive myself. Maybe there had been red flags I didn’t pick up on, like when his preschool teachers had fire drills when he wasn’t there because he found them so upsetting. But if I’d missed cues, it was because I was busy loving him just the way he was. I was busy nurturing his creativity, his love of language, and his soft heart. I was busy meeting the needs of the boy in front of me.

I remembered when he was first diagnosed and my husband and I had to explain to him why he had trouble with certain things: “Your brain just works a little differently than other people’s. You see things and feel things differently.” He nodded and seemed to seriously consider what we were saying. Then he said, “Mom, you had said that everyone’s different. Everyone sees things or feels things a little differently. You told me that is what makes the world a beautiful place.” Then he asked if he could go play Legos.

He was right, I had said things like that whenever he expressed strong opinions, often loudly, about what he didn’t like or understand. Many of those times were stressful, but now I would happily revisit every single one of them so I could see his face rapt with concentration, fortitude, and spirit. My son is now 16, ready to drive, excelling in school, playing a team sport, and happy. I couldn’t be prouder of the young man he’s become. He has grown into his busy brain, and his soft heart hasn’t hardened with age. And every day, he tells me that he loves me.

Rebecca L. Brown is the mother of three sons and the author of the novel Flying at Night.

Parents Magazine