What it's like to have an autistic mum – in my son's own words

Published on: 02 March 2022 Author: Joanna Grace

It was five-year-old Heath who helped his mum, Joanna Grace, step out of 'the autistic closet'. She explains why they then made a book together about her autism, very much from his perspective...

Heath, co-author of My Mummy is Autistic, with his baby brother

I’ve known I am autistic since I was a child. I read an article in a magazine when I was 11 and thought 'Oh, that’s what’s wrong with me'. Like many people on the spectrum, I set about "fixing" myself, by which I mean I learned to hide my autism. There is plenty of research out there that will tell you how bad it is for mental and physical health to hide who you are.

I was diagnosed when I was 36. I was very nervous about coming "out" professionally. I feared that people’s misconceptions of what it means to be autistic would make work difficult for me. In the end, I was outed by my five-year-old son! Why? Well – because I ran over his foot with a shopping trolley.

Let me explain...

Understanding my brain is wired differently

I am a primary school teacher by trade, so I know the importance of making writing purposeful to motivate children to do it. Consequently, my son Heath has been making shopping lists for me since he was very small. Even his lists of scribbles were useful to us in the supermarket, he could read them even if I couldn’t and it gave us something to chat about and something for him to do as we did the weekly shop.

Aged four, Heath could write the list and direct the shop. He would ride on the front of the trolley, telling me where to go and checking things off his list. Great for me, all I have to do is push!

One day, we were doing the shop in this manner, and he was telling me all about something very exciting he had been doing. Like many neurodivergent people, I experience a delay in my language processing. I understand all that is said to me but it takes a while to fully sink in. I think of this as like the little circle that comes up on a computer screen, saying "buffering". In a conversation with someone, I get the skim-read version of what they’ve said, and it’s only later when I get home that I truly hear everything that was said to me.

Amidst his excited monologue, Heath popped in the word "stop" to let me know he was about to leap off the front of the trolley and get our tomatoes. But I was two sentences or more behind him. I didn’t hear him when he needed me to, and I ran over his foot with the trolley. He was hurt, more offended than bruised. 'But Mummy, I said "stop", why didn’t you stop?' he asked me, wide-eyed in the aisle.

I told him I was sorry, made a fuss of his foot, and then redirected him to the tomatoes, but as we continued our shop, I knew I couldn’t promise him that I wouldn’t do it again. As we left the shop, I explained to him that my brain is wired differently and that the words line up to get into my head. He had newly started school and lining up was a big deal, so I think he understood.

The next morning, I wanted to check his understanding (a very teachery thing to do), so I asked him to tell me about yesterday. Immediately, he grabbed a piece of paper and started to draw. He drew the words lining up to get into my head. He drew my listening face (eyes pointing away) and his listening face (eyes looking at you), he drew the shuffling of spoken words that can happen for people with differences in their language processing. He drew it all in bright felt tip pens. The drawings are those vivid, full-of-love drawings only children can do, with big yellow sunshines in the skies above us.

He understood so easily. He accepted, embraced, celebrated, effortlessly. Looking at his images makes you wonder why neurodivergence seems so tricky for adults to understand.

Look at some of Heath's drawings from the book

Drawing by Heath: From My Mummy is Autistic
Drawing by Heath: From My Mummy is Autistic
Drawing by Heath: From My Mummy is Autistic
My mummy is autistic front cover
Drawing by Heath: From My Mummy is Autistic

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Drawing by Heath: From My Mummy is Autistic

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Drawing by Heath: From My Mummy is Autistic

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Front cover of My Mummy is Autistic

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How the drawings became a published book

I told Heath to write a sentence under his picture (because I am a teacher and that’s what teachers do). I promised him that if he drew me some more on another day that we would staple them together and make a book. (I imagined we’d give it to Grandma.) The summer holidays were just beginning, I saw in this topic of mummy’s brain a subject that might keep his pen skills sharp until the start of school...

At the end of the holidays, I looked at the book he had written. I thought 'This is good', but I also knew that I am his mummy, of course I’m going to think that! But Routledge thought so too and they offered to publish it. And environmentalist and broadcaster Chris Packham thought so as well, writing in his foreword for it that it is remarkably tender and heartwarming, whilst also presenting a brutal truth in a clear and honest fashion.

It is hard to stay in the autistic closet when you are the ridiculously proud mummy of the UK’s youngest published author!

Read BookTrust's review of the book

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