Not too long ago, Morgan Harper Nichols was out with her 2-year-old son, Jacob. The two of them were using fidget spinners, and someone began speaking to Nichols about the toy.
“(They) were like, ‘Oh, that is such a cool toy for your kid.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s not his toy. It’s mine,’” said Nichols, 32, a writer and artist who is discovering what it means to be a parent with autism.
Nichols was diagnosed about a year and a half ago when her son was about 6 months old. A recent study in the peer-reviewed journal Autism revealed that it's common for females to be diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions later than males — leaving many women grappling with unmet needs for years, then giving them an opportunity in adulthood to re-live their lives “through a new lens” and make the transition “from being self-critical to self-compassionate.”
In Nichols' case, receiving an autism diagnosis transformed how she approached her new role as a mom.
“A lot of the pressure came off of me, feeling like I have to be a parent in a certain way,” she told TODAY Parents. “After receiving my diagnosis I’m like, ‘You know what, I’m going to let that stuff go. I’m just going to be me.’”
Nichols said she suspected she had autism for years but didn't get a formal diagnosis until the pandemic. She decided to find a specialist in her area after watching a TikTok video of a woman sharing her story of being diagnosed with autism as an adult. Nichols said she still finds creators who discuss autism on social media to be helpful.
“There’s just a growing number of people who are becoming very open about what their daily struggles are and what they’re learning and what’s difficult for them, and I save so many of these posts and I’ll go back and read them,” she said. “It’s just a reminder of, ‘OK. I’m not the only person who feels like I’m not quite getting things right.’”
Before her diagnosis, Nichols said she often felt like she was the only one struggling with some of the issues she faced, such as challenges communicating with peers. But thanks to social media and chats with her sister, who has ADHD and Tourette syndrome, she said she feels less alone. Still, that doesn’t make the common parenting job of organizing and being present at play dates any easier for her.
“One of the things my sister and I talk a lot about is the social pressure of being a parent, such as play dates. ... For a lot of us (on the autism spectrum), our socialization might look different than someone who is neurotypical,” she said. “A lot of our socialization comes around special interests.”
For Nichols, making art and writing poetry helps her “cope with the world.” She creates new art pieces all the time, and she's published several books; her latest book, “Peace is a Practice: An Invitation to Breathe Deep and Find a New Rhythm for Life,” came out in February. She said her creative, whimsical approach to life isn’t always something that other parents understand.
“I find it very hard to even make friends because it sometimes seems like it’s not socially acceptable for parents to bring what some might say is a childlike part of themselves to life,” Nichols said. “It can be really challenging to find community where I and others feel free to just express themselves.”
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Since her diagnosis, Nichols said she has made a point of doing less "masking," an adaptive practice where people on the autism spectrum make an effort to hide their autistic traits.
“(Some people become) so good at hiding them that people may not even necessarily know that you’re autistic. So that is something as a parent I became very good at very early on,” she explained. “I had to add inflection to my voice when I’m speaking … because that’s how people expected me to talk.”
But she’s stopped doing that as much.
“It’s already exhausting being a parent. So trying to be like someone that I’m not and camouflage my autistic behavior and my autistic traits — that’s not something that I’m going to do just to constantly pressure myself,” Nichols said. “It’s so baked into who I am at this point, but sometimes I have to check myself and I’m like, ‘Whoa, wait, maybe I’m not going to add inflection in my voice here because I’m really tired.’”
She said having a better understanding of herself has helped her tremendously.
“Being neurodivergent, there’s always this sort of thing in the underbelly — like there is a certain way the world works, and I don’t always fit into that,” she said. “But the other side of that is that it can be very freeing.”
She's found that being a parent with autism can be loads of fun. Nichols has stopped putting pressure on herself to have a very structured routine for her son because that isn't something that works for her. She's also instituted an open toy policy at home because she often finds as much joy and comfort playing with toys as little Jacob does.
“We both have toys that we equally enjoy. It’s not like toys are just for kids,” she said. “And (yet) that small thing, some people might be surprised, is very hard to explain.”
She noted that frequently playing with toys adds a little whimsy to parenting — something she recommends for anyone. And she pointed out that toys like fidget spinners are not just for neurodivergent people, either.
“Get some stress toys, keep them in your pocket and your purse and your bag,” she suggested. “It’s something a lot of people could benefit from, just having something to fidget with to keep your hands busy.”
Related essay: What if we stopped talking about autism?