Mothers Grapple With Autism's Impact On Siblings (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Mothers Grapple With Autism's Impact On Siblings

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
So as we just heard, the road to motherhood can be quite the journey, but experiencing motherhood, being a mom, that can be quite the adventure, too. For instance, let's say you're a mother whose child is diagnosed with autism. From that point on, you and your family are often heading down a twisty and turny path of doctor's visits, therapy sessions and other time-consuming interventions. And if you have other kids, kids who are so-called typical, you have the added challenge of trying to find a balance. Tara Boyle brings us the stories of several moms who are experiencing just that.

MS. TARA BOYLE

00:00:41
Hunter and Kyla McLaughlin just got home from school and they're blowing off steam on their backyard trampoline.

MR. HUNTER MCLAUGHLIN

00:00:47
Mom, Kyla says she's going to hit me.

MISS KYLA MCLAUGHLIN

00:00:49
Because I'm trying to do a backā€¦

MS. SHELLY MCLAUGHLIN

00:00:51
Oh, Hunter, she doesn't want to hit you while she's flipping.

BOYLE

00:00:54
They're bickering, just like any other siblings you might meet in this suburban part of Bel Air, Md. Their mom, Shelly McLaughlin, says Hunter and Kyla are close, best friends.

MCLAUGHLIN

00:01:03
They're a year apart, and in some ways they're almost like twins.

BOYLE

00:01:08
Hunter is 11 and has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism. For years, that diagnosis impacted every dimension of the family.

MCLAUGHLIN

00:01:16
He was very impulsive as a younger child, and if it came to mind, he just reacted and did it.

BOYLE

00:01:24
If they were out in public, like at the grocery store, that impulsiveness could be a big problem.

MCLAUGHLIN

00:01:29
He would take off. I would be in the checkout line, he would bolt out the door into the parking lot, and he was not coming back unless I went and physically grabbed him.

BOYLE

00:01:39
McLaughlin, a single mom, knew how stressful this was for her. But it was only recently that she started to realize how autism has affected Kyla.

MCLAUGHLIN

00:01:48
There are times where she's, you know, like another mommy to him. You know, I remember times where he was having meltdowns, and he would just trash his room, and then when he was calm I would go in to talk to him, and Kyla would walk in and start picking the things up in his room.

MCLAUGHLIN

00:02:06
McLaughlin says these experiences have made her daughter a more compassionate person. But being a sibling of a child with autism sometimes means Kyla had to fight for her mom's attention.

MCLAUGHLIN

00:02:15
In a way she almost got kind of stuck developmentally, in that during those critical developmental periods, I couldn't give her the attention she needed because I was so busy trying to deal with the daily crises that were going on with Hunter and his explosions and his meltdowns and running away.

BOYLE

00:02:39
McLaughlin says slowly, over time, things have gotten easier. These days, Hunter and Kyla like to cook together and make movies on Hunter's iPad. And the fact that their life is calming down a bit, that makes a lot of sense to this woman.

MS. KATHLEEN ATMORE

00:02:52
My name is Kathleen Atmore. And I'm a developmental neuropsychologist at the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children's National Medical Center.

BOYLE

00:02:59
Atmore is also a mom. She has four children, including a set of twin boys. One of the twins was diagnosed with autism at 18 months.

ATMORE

00:03:06
My son with autism would have just a lot of trouble handling frustration. I think that was the first thing I saw. Even his cry was different.

BOYLE

00:03:15
Atmore knows how all-consuming autism can be for parents and kids. But now that her sons are in their teens, she also has a longer-term perspective to share with families just starting on this path.

ATMORE

00:03:26
I have gone from the terrified mother to the capable professional in one day. And I think that experience has helped me understand that every difficult period evolves into something else that, you know, might still be challenging. But it gets better.

BOYLE

00:03:46
Atmore says she advises parents to carve out one hour, one evening a week for each child in the family. She follows this practice with her own kids.

ATMORE

00:03:54
It's more than one hour now. It's usually between 8:00 and 10:00, that I just force myself to sit down. It's really been hugely helpful to simply sit down.

BOYLE

00:04:08
Twenty-five miles from Kathleen Atmore's D.C. office, in Woodbridge, Va., Katherine Walker has been working to find a similar sort of equilibrium with her own children. Right now she's meeting her nine-year-old son Adam at the bust stop.

MR. ADAM WALKER

00:04:19
My name's Adam. And I'm a good guy.

BOYLE

00:04:23
Adam is on the autism spectrum. His diagnosis is pervasive developmental delay not otherwise specified. Walker says she started noticing something was wrong when Adam was 18 months old.

MS. KATHERINE WALKER

00:04:35
And by the 24-month checkup, he was functioning at a 12-month level.

BOYLE

00:04:41
For years, Walker devoted all her energy to Adam's medical care and therapy. And her daughters, twins Sophia and Miriam, had to come along for the ride.

WALKER

00:04:48
Part of their childhood was definitely, I say, stolen because they had to grow up a lot faster than children who don't deal with disability in the family.

BOYLE

00:05:01
Walker says all that intensive focus has paid off for Adam. But now it's time to bring more balance into her daughters' lives. At the moment Sophia and Miriam are playing kickball with Adam and some neighborhood kids. But tonight the girls will go have one-on-one time with their mom, while Adam stays home with their grandfather.

WALKER

00:05:19
I've been doing Girl Scouts with them, and I'm the troop leader. Just those things that are mother-to-daughter kind of experiences and traditions that I'm trying to pass on.

BOYLE

00:05:28
Walker says she now feels her son and her daughters are getting what they need from her. Getting to this point has been hard, she says. But it's been worth it.

WALKER

00:05:36
These kids are exactly what I prayed for, even with the trials and tribulations with Adam, I am so blessed with my three children. And I love it, I absolutely love it.

BOYLE

00:05:48
I'm Tara Boyle.

SHEIR

00:05:53
This story was also informed by the Public Insight Network. And if you missed our plug for PIN earlier in the show, you can learn more at metroconnection.org/PIN.
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