Nothing prepares you for motherhood, as the old saying goes—more so motherhood to a child with autism. This was what longtime lifestyle editor Francine Marquez discovered when she had her son Matthew 13 years ago.
Feelings of heartbreak, guilt, and blame kicked in—but so did her boundless love and compassion for her little boy, and today, both Francine and Matthew are all the better for it. (Read: Three ways to foster love and acceptance for people with autism)
In celebration of Autistic Pride Day this June 17, My Pope asks Francine about her experience raising a child with special needs—from his diagnosis to how it has affected her as a parent and person.
How old was Matthew when you first saw signs of his autism?
My son was 3 years old when I noticed that he would rock and flap his hands. Prior to that, I was already aware of autism because his older cousin was diagnosed with it. At first, I didn’t want to believe that my son had autism because he was verbal, he could talk, and at 1 year old, he was good at humming songs, could recite the alphabet in full, and call me Mommy. These are milestones toddlers his age were supposed to do. (Read: Kids First: Building a Safe Space for Children with Different Abilities)
But then, I also noticed that he had problems looking directly into my and his dad’s eyes. And he would have tantrums as well. The flapping hands were sort of the giveaway that made me look for a development pediatrician to assess him. And after a series of tests, he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
What were your thoughts after the diagnosis?
I was very sad, not for me, but for my son. I felt heartbroken. Prior to his birth, I had a miscarriage. So I sort of blamed myself if I actually forced things to have him. I also wondered if during the past two years, I did something that caused his autism. I thought I was very careful with him, gave him an organic diet, I also tried to live healthily, how could this happen? I was blaming myself. (Watch: ‘Mom-on-a-Mission’ shares how her son with autism changed her life)
How has his autism evolved as he grew older?
I would say Matthew is turning out to be a sweet teenager who can accomplish chores at home. He is also a caring teen who is sensitive to our emotions as well.
I would also say we are blessed that we are able to care for our son and give him his needs. Therapy and education are really expensive here in the Philippines so I dearly hope that families that are economically challenged can also have access to therapy and special education, as well as sessions with a developmental pediatrician for their family members with special needs. (Read: A guide to parents who are raising children with special needs)
What are his interests? What do you notice he is good at?
Matthew loves to do calligraphy, his own style of doodling alphabets, that is. And he also loves to draw. He enjoys listening to music and can hum classical pieces. He is also quick to learn some pop songs he sees on YouTube.
How has his autism affected you as a parent and person?
They say, “Don’t cross paths with a tiger mom.” But I say, “Don’t cross paths with moms of kids with special needs.” We could be your worst nightmare when you have bullied or discriminated against our kids. (Read: ‘My son is being bullied in school! Should I talk directly to his classmate’s parents?’)
But seriously, I have become stronger because of my son. And I have become positive with the thought that life is what you truly make it. People with autism can also contribute a lot to the community especially if they are given the opportunity to learn and shine with their talents. We just need to be kinder and more understanding of them.
How are you preparing Matthew for his adult years?
We plan to have a business that he can participate in. For now, we are still planning it, but we’re equipping him with life skills so he could really grow up as someone who can do self-care, work, and pursue his passions with minimal assistance. (Watch: A Café with a Cause)
Raising a child with autism is a huge challenge. How do you manage the stress that comes with it?
There is no stress when a mother loves.
What would you like people to know about children with autism?
People with special needs can contribute to the community if they are given the opportunity to shine with their talents. Kindness to people with special needs and to ourselves matters—it’s an essential part of living a happy and meaningful life as humans.