Pariah of Motherhood-What It’s Like to be a Single Mom of a Severely Autistic Child

Written by Jeanene Lyons

When I was a kid growing up in the 80s, I never imagined becoming a single parent.  Despite my affinity for 1980s TV sitcoms, I knew single parenthood was NOT a Who’s the Boss, Punky Brewster, or Diff’rent Strokes scenario. I was raised by a single mom and knew the poverty, struggles, and obstacles associated with real single parenthood.  But now I find myself alone, trying to raise a child by myself with no family and little help.

But he isn’t just any child. He has severe autism and struggles with severe anxiety and has been hospitalized due to his aggressive behaviors.  Like most kids with autism, transitions are hard. And this school year would welcome many changes because he was about to start high school and face a new environment. A new teacher. A new morning routine. New aides. New restrictions with masks.  A new afternoon caregiver.  Plus, he hadn’t had direct instruction in six months due to COVID school closures.  

But he seemed fine. In the back of my head, I thought he would be fine. The old aggression was a thing of the past, right?   I had nothing to worry about, right?  And during the first week, I did get great reports.  “What a pleasure,” his teacher wrote to me on the first day.

The life of a single mom with little support is always teetering on the edge.  Life as a single mom with a child with severe needs makes it so that I’m always on high-alert. Always in survival mode.  Always waiting for the axe to fall.  So, I should have seen what was coming.

I had just finished my first week teaching high school in a “hybrid model” where kids in person learn with kids at home on their computers simultaneously.  I felt like a rock star because I had such low expectations of myself with this new way of learning, but I somehow pulled it off.  Sadly, that feeling was shattered when I got the call from my son’s afternoon sitter that first Friday afternoon.

 With weak cell service on my end and frantic-out-of-breath words on her end, I could still clearly hear, “He pooped on the floor…he’s throwing paint….he’s spitting on me…He knocked the TV over…He won’t stop….I can’t do anything….I’m afraid for my life.”  When we were disconnected, she kept texting that she couldn’t control him. 

Running to my car, I cradled my laptop which I pulled from the wall only seconds before, and that cord dragged on the parking lot blacktop.  My backpack was unzipped, and a hodgepodge of my teacher things was visibly crammed in there.  I tried balancing all of this while holding my phone and rushing to my car and trying to console this poor girl who was trying her best to help my son calm down.  I called back and told her to call the police. In that instant, I knew the severity of the situation. She feared for her life. And I feared for them both.

After carelessly throwing my many bags in the car, I put my car in reverse and also called the police to tell them what was happening. I wanted them to know the situation and that my son had autism because I didn’t want them to shoot and kill him.  As I sped down the road, my head was swirling. I was only 25 minutes away, but I felt like I was 250 miles away.  I envisioned my son’s dead body on the floor, shot by a police officer.   I envisioned the sitter screaming at the scene, watching silently as the gun smoke billowed in the air.  And I held back my tears because I knew if I started to cry I might not stop.

When I arrived, I surveyed the damage and realized the stability I had created since his last aggressive episode (three years ago) had broken. Everyone, including my son, was silent. My head was a blur. I felt numb.  I think I had to feel numb in order to not completely break down. I spoke matter-of -fact to the police and to the EMS who took him in an ambulance. I must have sounded like those “refrigerator moms” I heard about in old studies on autism. I apologized to the sitter and appallingly gave her hundreds of dollars to replace her clothes which were covered in orange paint. No money could replace the trauma, I know.

The ambulance took us to a children’s hospital where my son was observed for several hours. At one point, he tried to bolt, and for the first time in his life, he kicked me and hit me.  It was then that I finally cried. I broke. He had broken me. 

He was eventually discharged with a safety plan. Hide the knives. Hide the medicine. Watch him at all times.  The social worker came the next day to remind me of the plan and set up some services.  But of course, there is a waiting list for behavioral services, and he would be getting help through Telehealth anyway. 

The 1980s would have thrown out a TV sitcom pitch at a show with a kid with aggressive behaviors and autism.  Even the year 2020 would not accept such a story. But this is the reality for me and for many parents living with a child with a severe disability while trying to work full time.  To me, it feels like there is no place for moms like me.  Moms like us are isolated in nearly every way.  Pariahs of motherhood.  Outcasts.  We are unknown.  And so I write this to help people see the truth. It is not easy, but it is real.

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