Honk if you are a “Spectrum Mom”

By Viki Gayhardt

This fall, my husband and I decided it was time to put our old car out to pasture and look for something newer and bigger.  Our reliable sedan had seen us safely through many memorable road trips and a decade of New England winters, but it was time to get a roomier vehicle to accommodate not only my son’s growing legs, but also the ever-increasing mileage we seem to put on our cars.

When the unsuspecting young car salesman approached us and suggested that perhaps a mini-van might best suit our driving needs, I nearly snapped his head off in my reply, “You’ll see me dead before I’ll drive a mini-van.” After pulling the poor guy off the floor, I apologized as I dusted him off and inwardly asked myself what was wrong with me?  What is it that makes me sensitive to something so seemingly innocent as the suggestion of driving a mini-van?  After some soul searching, the answer became obvious: it’s the association. I associate mini-vans with the stereotypical idea of “soccer mom,” and I am anything but a soccer mom.

I like to think that I am a “recovered” judgmental person.  Because of the experience of mothering two children with autism spectrum disorder I’ve learned how painful judgment can be when on the receiving end of it, so I try my best to live the golden rule: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”  Therefore, I’ve picked my own brain to get at the seeds of my distain for any association with “soccer moms,” as I know there are many out there who are very nice ladies (I actually know some), and I think I’ve unearthed the roots.

When my daughter was around five, many moons ago, she was fully included in the local Kindergarten/ Daycare. All the parents were excited that their kids were of the age to begin recreational soccer.  Living in a small rural town and being a parent trained in inclusion, I signed my girl up for soccer with all her peers and hoped for the best.  Needless to say it was a disaster.  My daughter would tantrum when she didn’t get the ball kicked to her, and if she had the ball, she would tantrum when another kid tried to kick it away.

She cringed at the sound of the coach’s whistle, became distracted by a bystander’s dog, and picked handfuls of grass in the field to throw over her head.  I couldn’t support her during the practices as I was too busy running after my toddler son, also on the spectrum, who kept heading for the soccer ball in play, and more frightening, for the woods that lined the field.

Soccer practice was a nightmarish failure on display to a community that didn’t know how to support us and didn’t seem interested in doing so anyway (in hindsight, I know there were exceptions, but I was too distracted and hurt to notice).  Soccer practice was the realization that no matter how much I might support my kids and desire that they be included like every other kid, there were some things that they simply wouldn’t be able to do successfully.  I think this is where my distain for the term “soccer mom” stems from: that early realization that my life as a mother of two children with autism was so different, so removed, and so alien to all those other mothers on the sidelines.  I was resentful that they had the luxury of chatting with each other without worry and distraction, spending those lovely fall afternoons making social connections that would tie them to the community while I, tearfully leaving the soccer field with a screaming child under each arm, developed a distain for soccer and all the “normal” moms that happily experienced the sport through their “normal” kids.

Time and wisdom heal old wounds (and allows old soccer balls to deflate and wind up on the bottom of a pile of unused toys in the basement).  But seeing me in my new SUV, frazzled and disheveled, with my two good looking kids riding shot gun, zooming them from here to there, cell phone to my ear with papers loosely flapping in the back seat, one might easily mistake me for a soccer mom, too.  I can’t let that happen.  I’ve worked too hard at the autism thing to be mistaken for a parent who has built a social life around Pee Wee sports.  Alas, I am the antithesis of Soccer Mom…I am Spectrum Mom!

The increasing miles put on my car are not from soccer and dance practices, or from taking my kids to social outings at the mall or a friend’s house, or from going to the gym for some “me time” at a Pilates class.  Instead, my mileage compiles going to and from two different school districts, to therapies half a state away from where we reside, to Special Olympic events, to conferences and appointments regarding autism, IEP’s, transitional services, medication management, social skills classes, and legislative issues, while stopping at various drive-through restaurants for those French fries that seemingly sustain my son’s very life.  I do not chat on my cell phone with friends or neighbors about the latest town gossip, or to complain about how busy my children are with their friends.  Instead, I use my cell phone to communicate with the vast network of people with whom I work and are involved because of autism.

We are another species from another culture, we Spectrum Moms.  Vastly different from Soccer Moms, and yet with slight similarities that may confuse the untrained eye.  I want people to be clear about who we are because we deserve the respect that is inherent to working so darned hard to support our kids.  To avoid any cases of mistaken identity, I designed a car magnet to mock the “soccer mom” magnets, and so we will recognize each other on the road when the rocking figure in the passenger seat is not obvious enough for us to notice one another in our distraction and race to get to the next appointment or therapy.  I am proud of all my sisters, Spectrum Moms, as I am of myself, for “perseverating” in the face of indifference, for finding unending strength, courage, and humor in the little things, and for insisting that the world see our beautiful children as we see them.

So if you see me out on the road in my new SUV with a donut hanging out of my mouth and a “Spectrum Mom” car magnet where you might expect to find a soccer mom decal, honk if you are a Spectrum Mom, too!  Your smile, amidst the bags under your eyes and through the Chicken McNugget grease on your car window, will make my day!



Viki Gayhardt is the proud mother of a young adult and teenager with ASD, a Governor’s appointee on the NH Council on Autism Spectrum Disorders, and is employed as an autism family support specialist.