"It Can Be the Greatest Gift": A Mum Opens Up About Parenting a Son With Autism
"I am so truly grateful to have a son who has shown me the value of connection in a way that I would never have discovered without having the privilege of being his mum," says Brigit Ritchie as we chat about her family's experience navigating neurodiversity. The talented artist and founder of WE, a supportive community for women, had only just graduated from art school when she unexpectedly became a mother to her son Wyatt. Then, shortly after the birth of her daughter Eden just two years later, Wyatt was diagnosed with ASD, autism spectrum disorder.
"I didn't really know about autism, but I had a sense that Wyatt was going to have his own journey and that it maybe wasn't going to be a typical one," she told MyDomaine. At first, Ritchie confessed that she felt in over her head as a young mum parenting a child with special needs, but now that Wyatt is 10, her family has a set of established values that help them navigate their neurodiversity together. "The opportunity I've had to parent someone on the spectrum has given me so much," she explained. "It's taught me so much about relationships and about myself." As we chat on the phone, I can hear the smile in her voice as she speaks passionately about her relationship with her son and her family's strong (and truly admirable) values.
Ahead, Ritchie graciously shares how her relationship with her son has challenged her preconceived notions about motherhood, how her family has navigated an unconventional path of neurodiversity, and how she and her husband have developed values for their family that allow for everyone to be celebrated.
On Becoming a Young Mother
My husband and I got married and had kids at a very young age—surprise! It was a super intense and rocky parenting start as I had just graduated from art school and was pursuing a studio practice full-time. My husband was an entrepreneur, and we were absolutely broke. It was super intense for us to become unexpected parents, which was only compounded by having a son with special needs.
It was very early on that I knew Wyatt was on his own path, and although I'd never known anyone with autism, I saw the signs early on. He was diagnosed with ASD shortly after I had my daughter Eden. So we began our story of discovering what it could look like to support Wyatt and our whole family as we chartered the unknown.
On Creating a Space for Women to Support One Another
Early on, I hit a wall of trying to be good enough and just trying harder, and when I realised I couldn't do it alone, I started thinking about creating a community. I realised that I couldn't continue to just work harder, and try harder, and figure it out on my own. But instead of thinking How do I find a community of young mums, like myself, who are broke, and depressed, and anxious? I said to myself How do I find a community of people who relate to me and at the same time don't relate to me?
When I founded WE, I wanted to create a safe space for people to connect and support each other that goes beyond a shared stage of life, or interest, or belief. Diversity of every kind is such a rich resource. If I only sought knowledge from people who looked exactly like me, I'd be missing out. It's hard for me to even imagine having a community around me of people who exactly fit in, and I wish that WE were even more diverse in so many ways. I know from experience that giving and receiving support to and from people with different circumstances than me is invaluable.
On Her Preconceived Notions of Motherhood
I didn't realise how, unconsciously, I felt that being a parent was, in some ways, a way for me to feel successful. I didn't realise that I had this idea that if I did a great job, I would have kids that hit all the milestones that our society uses to mark success. It wasn't until I had a child who would both radically surpass some of those milestones and who would never reach others (in the traditional sense) that I realised my idea of motherhood is tied to results.
I started to see how that really permeated a lot of areas of my life. A lot of what I was doing was a performance for others in order to create a sense of value and worth of who I was, rather than having unconditional love and acceptance for myself. It wasn't until I had a child on the spectrum that I saw the depth of how I was living in a very performance-oriented kind of framework. A lot of what I was doing was just to fill this need in myself to feel good about my worth.
Parenting has given me an opportunity to have a sense of worth and value beyond performing for others or looking at results and really valuing connection above everything else. Unconditional love, the power of presence of someone, has allowed me to find my center of gravity outside of my successes.
On the Best Thing About Being a Mum
It's almost beyond words, honestly, but I think the best thing about being a mum, for me, is living in those little moments where I get to be with a person who I can both give and receive unconditional love. It gives me that sense of a true home, a sense of true belonging, because we belong to each other. It's just that sense of it's enough.
In some ways, being a mother really has taught me to enjoy and celebrate other people because it's so easy for me to enjoy and celebrate my kids. Before I was a parent, I'd see these Instagram posts and think What's the big deal? Your kid's at the beach. Now, I think being a parent is this incredible way of celebrating another person, of enjoying another person, and being able to celebrate the miracle that is life.
On the Most Surprising Thing About Being a Mum
Honestly, I think the surprising thing about being a mum is how valuable it is to be yourself with your kids. I mean, I don't necessarily tell them every deep, dark secret I've ever had, but I think what surprised me most is how much it means to my kids when I show up and I'm vulnerable. It's an incredible insight into humanity because that's really all people are asking for, and it's something that I never got as a kid from my own parents.
I've found that, if I create a space where we can all feel safe, honestly, a lot of the other things work themselves out. I think that holding myself to that standard of saying, I'm going to really be where I am, and comfortable in my own skin, and be self-accepting has circumvented quite a bit of confusion in my parenting because I'm modeling what I want my kids to do for themselves and other people in the world. I start with how I treat and how I connect with myself.
On Navigating Neurodiversity as a Family
The gift of autism really forced us to decide what's the most important thing. What are we trying to do as parents? If it's not just to turn out cool, successful people [laughter], what are we trying to create here, and what do we need to do it? In some ways, it was such a gift because it highlighted to us that our first and foremost intention is to create an environment where people can absolutely be themselves.
There is an unconditional support that we want to give each other and ourselves in this space. An environment in which people are unconditionally accepted is a great foundation for them to grow. This is a very Brené Brown type of mentality, but we really believe in the power of respecting people, of trusting people, and of loving people without an agenda. We try to always choose respect and trust and love over fear and control and shame.
I have a memory of my daughter, who's not on the spectrum, crying one day and saying, "I wish I was special. I wish I was autistic." That was a really important moment for me to say, "Absolutely, you are profoundly crucial to this family. Your contribution, your perception, is just as important as someone who's on the autism spectrum." Creating a space to honor and respect our different stories, really seeing all of us as having our own stories, and how can we learn and contribute to each other from our own stories is really important.
On the Importance of Neurodiversity
Neurodiversity is a really important way to see the spectrum because, in so many ways, we all are on the spectrum. I don't say that lightly, but I do say I think it's a powerful reminder that we absolutely need diversity in our perspective and in the way that we encounter the world. There's no doubt in my mind that there's something really beautiful about the way that my son see the world. It's so pure and it's so intense and it's so unfiltered. And I don't idealise it, I don't romanticise it, I genuinely value it. I feel like it is a massive contribution to the way we understand relationships and the world around us.
I also know that it's important to have people who are more "neurotypical" contributing to him and sort of giving him insight from their perspective of what the world looks like to them. But I absolutely don't have a doubt that, as people who would be considered more neurotypical, we can learn so much from them and them from us. Creating a culture of neurodiversity means allowing for a space for differences. I don't mean to overstate this, but it's important to not romanticise or idealise people who are different but really create a value for everyone.
I think there's so much to be learned from people who are different from you, and autism is an example of that. I really appreciate when people lean in and are not offended or sensitive or uncomfortable with someone who might be doing things differently than them.