My experiences of baby and toddler groups as an Autistic person
They exude neuronormativity.
As an Autistic person I face multiple marginalisations on a daily basis - of simply trying to navigate a hostile (neurotypical) world. The unpredictability of daily life is overwhelming and wherever I go I anticipate sensory threat e.g. noises, lights, smells, temperatures, crowds, visual disturbances. In addition I also experience interpersonal distress whereby I encounter communication breakdowns and misunderstandings. My communication is misunderstood and people don't give me enough time or support when I'm having executive functioning struggles. This Double Empathy Problem arises in most of my interactions when I am out in the community. But as an Autistic parent there are added demands. This makes baby and toddler groups sensory and social nightmares. They are basically social skills groups and it seems that there is one 'right way' to interact with other people - and even with your baby. There are countless social and parenting expectations e.g., kids are told repeatedly to sit down in a circle during song time and if your kid is the only one roaming around the room picking up the toys that have just been tidied away, you get a judgmental glance from others. If your kid doesn't put a book back and accidentally walks over the book, you get a judgmental glance from another parent. If your kid doesn't want to share a toy and you don't step in and say "sharing is caring", you get a judgmental glance. Girls are expected to play with toy kitchens and boys are expected to play with trains and diggers. You hear "good sharing", "nice playing", "good listening". If you are the only parent in the room not saying these things to your child, you feel judged. You question your own parenting even though you are knowledgeable in neurodivergent-affirming supports, child-led approaches, and trauma-informed care. Because even with your own training and expertise, due to the levels of interpersonal trauma and conditioning, you doubt yourself when you're in real-life spontaneous interactions.
Conversation topics at the groups tend to be tedious. Is your baby hitting their ‘expected' developmental milestones? Percentile ranks, sleep, work, consistency of poo, husbands/partners, dieting, alcohol, holidays. There is rarely an authentic conversation and as an Autistic person my wellbeing is dependent on being myself - and being able to access and talk about my interests (which you barely have capacity for as a parent). You modify your communication for the sake of social politeness but this comes at a huge cost due to the physical, cognitive, emotional, and sensory labour. The Autistic person masks their difficulties and they cannot be their true self in these social contexts. Given that masking is a trauma response and a way for the Autistic person to self-protect, social situations such as these result in you performing neurotypical social skills. For example, forcing eye-contact, suppressing stimming, and hiding sensory distress. It can also involve rehearsing jokes and social scripts, being hyperaware of how your body moves and how you come across. At baby groups I sometimes wear ear defenders to cope with the overwhelming noise, and as a result, people avoid interacting with me. The internalised ableism of “I shouldn’t wear my ear defenders because what will people think” is an ongoing battle. I either wear them which supports my nervous system, (but results in social exclusion), or I don't wear them and I hide my sensory distress, (but at least it MIGHT create an opportunity for some kind of interaction). These groups provide me with brief moments of rest during my day whereby I don’t have to sit at home alone entertaining my baby (which is relentless, exhausting, and boring - yes I said it, boring).
At a group I can sit while my toddler roams, and I can play Tetris on my phone to get a moment of much needed mental and physical rest. But when I do this, I sense judgment from other mothers (I use 'mothers' as the majority who attend groups are traditionally the birthing parent who identify as the mother). I also worry that the mothers and group facilitators think I'm neglectful because I’m not sat on the floor interacting with my baby and talking constantly in an animated voice (which is not necessary for the child to develop their speech, language, and communication skills). Because of my difficulties I simply don’t have the energy to chit-chat and play with my baby - but I force myself to anyway to appear as the "good" mother. It's performative and exhausting. I leave most groups feeling tired, disconnected, and excluded. I sit, smile, nod, pretend to be interested in people's conversations. I make sure I give enough eye-contact and ask follow-up questions to avoid being perceived as 'odd'. I observe other parents talking to each other seemingly effortlessly and I wonder "what am I missing?". I avoid personal or emotive topics and avoid talking about sensory overload, anxiety, executive functioning struggles, how the rattles/crinkly blankets/music/crying/talking are awful to my brain and body. But I go to the groups because I know they could be good for my child so they can experience social and learning opportunities, and because I seek connection.
Most Autistic people have accumulated trauma from health, education, and social care services. This iatrogenic harm needs to be addressed in service development whether that's NHS or local community services/groups. Generally speaking, professionals have a poor understanding of autism and are still entrenched in the deficit theories e.g., we lack empathy, have no Theory of Mind, and have poor social skills. There is little understanding of neurodivergence despite buzzwords being used. Creating neuro-inclusive groups that include neurotypical and Autistic parents is crucial which involves addressing barriers related to the sensory and communication environment - "baby sensory groups" should not just include overstimulation, it should also include sensory soothing activities. But what we really need is parent groups for Autistic mothers/parents. If there were Autistic-led / Autistic-shared spaces then this would create a sense of social belonging that is so desperately needed.
And lastly, to any group facilitators, please don't call me "Mum".