What Autism Does to a Mother
Typically, Nicole's social life would flourish in September when her girls
returned to school. Her calendar was always packed with playdates, volunteer
work, and plans to meet other moms for coffee. But Ryan's fierce tantrums in
public places — even just on quick errands to Target — crushed any return to
normalcy. Before summer break, she chatted happily with other moms at school
drop-off. Now, she preferred to be invisible on school grounds.
"Friends didn't know how to react," says Nicole. "In passing, I
was constantly asked, 'How are you doing?' I dreaded this question. 'Fine,' was
a lie, and I needed more than 10 seconds to really answer. And I didn't want to
break down in front of the girls anyway. So I'd walk into school with big, dark
sunglasses on and leave quickly to avoid conversation. In the car, the tears
Gone, too, was the weekly playgroup Nicole hosted at her house for church
friends and their kids. Like many children with autism, Ryan has heightened
sensitivities to strangers as well as to noisy environments; these factors
either set off screaming and crying fits or caused him to hide. Nicole knew
that the playgroup would be uncomfortable, possibly intolerable, for her son.
"I didn't want people looking at Ryan acting up and thinking, Wow, that's
really awful," she says. "I was protective of my son and didn't want
him to be judged." Sometimes when visitors came over, Ryan retreated to his
parents' bedroom upstairs, pulling Nicole with him. "I'd have a family over
for a barbecue and instead of socializing, I hid in my bedroom with Ryan,"
says Nicole. "If I tried to leave the room, he'd get mad and push me back
While a few friends hung in there, the phone calls from others faded.
"Life went on for them," says Nicole. "But without the phone
ringing, and without being able to run errands because of Ryan's behavior, my
days were filled with silence." Nicole often cried to her husband, Tim,
about the loneliness. Tim, 38, who owns a contracting business, realized how
suffocating the situation was for his wife. "I had work as an escape,"
he says. "But autism was every minute of Nicole's day."
A part of Nicole simply shut down. "I did put up a wall," she says.
"When someone reached out, I didn't jump. I just felt like, 'There's
nothing anyone can do to fix this.'"
"I kept turning down help"
After the prayer vigil, Nicole's "wall" began to crack. "I felt
so cared for during the vigil, which was very healing," she says. But it
was a new friend, Sue Stigler, who finally convinced Nicole to truly drop her
Sue and Nicole were in the same social circle at church, but they weren't
close. So it surprised Nicole when the 41-year-old mom, who has a son Ryan's
age, took on the role of best friend. Sue began showing up at her door
throughout the summer wanting to help — she stopped by with uplifting greeting
cards, cookies, chocolate, and offers to shop for groceries and even to clean
Nicole's house. "I kept turning her down," says Nicole. "I wanted
help, but I felt like I was drowning in everything I needed."