Autism and Birth- My Experience Working as an Autistic Birth Worker
Working as an autistic birth worker- even stringing together that sentence is intimidating to me. Mostly because of the huge amount of misinformation around autism. If you haven't already, please go back and read part one in this series for a basic preface of understanding that is vital to understanding these posts.
One night after a long beautiful week full of human experiences, I was reflecting and wrote this on a poetry page I manage:
"So often I feel like I have to
separate- my most capable self,
and my most disabled self.
Capable me supported a client
through 30 hours of labor
and then drove home safely.
Disabled me fell to the floor
in a hyperventilating mess when
I thought about having to call
to set up my own doctors appointment.
Disabled me froze in the grocery store
and couldn't finish my shopping trip.
I am both. I'm the same person. Yet
Society only wants to accept one half of me.
Either I am capable, or I am disabled.
...In reality- I am both."
I stand by this piece, and its really why writing this post is so difficult. Being autistic, means I experience life in a way that is very different from others. Many things are so much more challenging, or even impossible for me.
Many things are so much easier and more natural to me as well.
I can not separate my autism from myself, it is who I am, vitally, to the core. It is not a disease or something to cure but a unique wiring, a unique way of experiencing the world. Different than it is for nerotypicals.
To be Nerotypical, is to have a brain that filters out things as you live, as you go about your day. Things like the feeling of your clothes, the buzzing of electronics, the textures differences between foods, the flavor of your own saliva, the feeling of your clothing against your skin. You may notice these things in passing, or with focus, but they are mild, they do not consume your senses.
To be Nerodiverse or Autistic, is to have an amplifier, where that filter is either completely broken, or perhaps our brain has removed it for a reason. Perhaps that filter inhibits feeling that is vital to our existence. There is not enough known about the brain, or about autism, and up until recently- autism has only been seen as something to cure, something wrong, something only acknowledged in one white-male-basic-violent-disconnected presentation. We now know, that it is so much more then that. Not a broken person, or a side effect of improper drug use, or a specific look or type, but an entirely different way of existing.
Autistic people deserve to live as fully as they choose to, just like any other human.
These sensory experiences, this difference in filter, can make that difficult in systems and societies that were created with the nerotypical in mind. These systems, were created for ease, comfort, and instantaneous satisfaction. Some call this the microwave society. But the very ways these systems make things easier or more comfortable for nerotypical people- make things more difficult and painful for others. One could also use this type of explanation for any people living in a different way because of other disability or lifestyle. They simply are not built to accommodate. However, unique to autism, is this filter, this way our brain interprets stimuli. This filter is something important. Living without it, existing in a way different from it, is difficult in our culture.
It can make things like wearing clothes, going to the bathroom, or grocery shopping- extremely painful compared to what a nerotypical person would experience. Being constantly exposed to so much stimulation that is raw and violent and unfiltered, makes it easy to get overstimulated. A phrase that you have probably heard if you have kids! Kids get overstimulated easily too. So do parents who get touched out. Imagine those kids who touch and touch and pull and talk, and cry allllll day- be impersonated in your clothing, your car, the air around you.
Another thing that comes with Autism, is social barriers. It's believed that autistic people are socially inept, but, from what I have witnessed in my own communities and experienced in my own life is that we are not inept. We simply socialize differently. I can not speak for all autistic people so i'll just touch on my own experiences.
As a child it was difficult for me to learn or understand the purpose of social rules. This led to me getting into a lot of confusing situations, and being labeled as "rebellious", "manipulative", and "difficult" by my parents and teachers alike. Especially in school settings. We found out over the years that a traditional school environment was not helpful to me, and I found myself failing. Everything.
I was very smart, a very capable learner. I was hyper verbal (having a high capability for speech, language, and words) and reading from a super young age. I had a huge vocabulary and could read years above my age based reading level. Despite all of these "gifts", I failed almost everything and by the time I entered high school I had quite given up. Managing the sensory overload of school was so overwhelming, though I didn't know what the word sensory even meant at the time. I found myself trying desperately to learn how to socialize, how to speak to others, how to participate in conversations without being looked at like a crazy person, how to dress, how to read those hidden rules no one tells you about. I studied everyone. Academics came easily to me, and I think I knew I would be able to thrive and learn anything I wanted to with books.
The problem area, the area in which I felt I needed to study, was all social. So I unconsciously made the choice to stop applying myself to school, and to focus intently on making friends, and learning how to socialize, how to exist in a way that would be more acceptable to others. This of course, was not met kindly by adults in my life. No one really understood what I was going through and I didn't have enough understanding myself to explain it or ask for help. After years and years of struggling and switching schools and teachers and trying and trying, I ended up homeschooling for the rest of tenth grade in high school and dropping out. I hate that word. Dropping out. But it is literally what I choose to do. To drop out of a way of life that was not working for me. The thing is- I didn't just drop out to cheat or give up. I simply found a better way to accommodate myself. I considered this graduating early, I acquired a GED diploma. This is a process in which you have to take a long series of tests, to see if you qualify in knowledge against the average high school graduate would, to receive an equivalent of a diploma. With almost no study at all, I passed every single test with honors in the top 90% in every subject for all of my state. This means I passed in a way that was far beyond average, that showed extreme intelligence and capability. I received awards and the honor of a speech at the graduation ceremony. Despite this victory, this obvious representation of my academic skill and smarts, despite this release that I felt, I was looked down upon for this path and choice. But it was the best choice I ever made for myself.
It led me to a place where I could THRIVE. It led me to internships and experiences and friendships I would have never been able to be a part of before. Traditional school paths absolutely failed me. When I chose my own path and allowed myself to have the accommodations I needed- I thrived.
Had I been forced to endure all 4 years of school, I doubt that I would have even been able to graduate. While I was capable of retaining the information, I was not capable of completing the steps in the way that was most socially accepted. I would have been crushed and the spirit would have continued to be beaten out of me by standards I didn't have the tools to meet. Or perhaps if I had applied myself academically, I would have lost touch socially, continued to be a victim of severe bullying and manipulation by people who were more aware of my social stunts than I was. Again, resulting in a broken spirit.
It does not matter how amazing a student is. If they are not supported in every area of life, if they are not being accommodated and evaluated to have their needs met at home, in food, in touch, in speech, in communication. If they are not taught in areas of life that are not academic- they will not succeed according to national schooling standards. We see it all the time. People who can not take written tests well, or who struggle with reading because of a visual disability. Too often, these people fall through cracks and get mislabeled and written off.
It might have been different if my diagnosis was found as a child instead of now as an adult. If I could have gotten the right tools and help, if I had been supported in a way that taught me to manage. But in addition to not having any of those resources, I also grew up in an unsafe home, so it is doubtful that even with a diagnosis I would have been able to avoid that difficult beginning.
After my graduation, I participated in a few successful adventures, only to once again- find myself facing the same problems, just in a different context. Work.
I remember in one high school class I had this really kind teacher that I felt comfortable enough around to tell her when I was feeling ill. (which was constantly due to very real undiagnosed illnesses, and overstimulation) She gently suggested to me one day that maybe I wasn't sick, but maybe I just didn't want to be there. She meant it as an encouragement, a way to puck up and push through, but it felt terrible. Because I knew she was right. I was ill. But not in a way that others could accept, or a way I was able to understand or communicate. I knew I felt unwell, terribly terribly unwell SO often. But I did not know why, or why it coincided with my being present in these places of school and work and social expectation. I was an undiagnosed autistic person being forced to, trying desperately to, behave in a nerotypical way with no support. It was so painful. I carried so much shame. I thought at this point, there had to be something wrong with me. I spent the next several years trying to understand why I couldn't function and show up like other kids seemed to be doing.
And then, I asked the same questions as an adult. Why couldn't I show up like my co workers did? Like kids at youth camp did? Why couldn't I just be normal and function the way a human is meant to?
I would start out really strong in a job, excited, an amazing worker. I was organized, always on time, creative and great at so many things. And then, things started to grind on me. Waking up very early (I struggle with mornings for many reasons), to be inside the same four walls for the same hours every single day. Being expected to preform at my highest masking capabilities every single day. Needing to be organized, on time, managing others, managing creating things, every single day without any rest, while carrying this perfectionism I embodied and demanded of myself in order to make up for my shortcomings. While witnessing others who only showed me that "everyone has to do it" so "deal with it" or "everyone else manages, why can't you?" It wore me down even in my most rewarding jobs. It made me feel absolutely awful about myself. The echos of people from my past telling me, and these constant failings making me believe that I was selfish, unkind, irresponsible, manipulative- the words were pounding with every beat of my heart.
I began to get ill again. Week after week, day after day. My first job I left after a lot of social bullying. I was what they called- super gullible, which resulted in bullying and being professionally taken advantage of by co workers who found it hilarious.
My second job I had a boss who was super understanding but still eventually had to talk to me about how much I was calling out. I would sit in bed absolutely sick to my stomach with anxiety and exhaustion, berating myself for failing, for wanting to call in. Sick just knowing how hard it was going to be to have to socialize all day at this job, to have to do things I was uncomfortable with, things that brought me genuine pain- and trying to convince myself not to pick up the phone and call in. But I had to too often. I realized it wasn't working and decided to try something else.
Thats when I started Nannying. Which, worked for a time, and was better because of some sense of control over my own work and hours, but again soon became repetitive and demanding. I could unmask and be my truer self around kids which was great- but I still couldn't take those vital breaks to recharge my social battery. I couldn't articulate what my needs were, how I could possibly make this manageable.
Eventually I tried retail and customer service (BIG mistake that did not last long) and even a coffee shop. That was also a nightmare. I loved the job in the beginning, but because of my information processing limitations it was difficult to hear through the drive through headphones, and manage the huge amount of social efforts combined with the massive amounts of recipes I had to memorize. Eventually I was let go gently for a reason that seemingly had nothing to do with me, but I knew.
Phew, all of that to say, eventually, after many journeys into motherhood and birth rights and photography- I found this. My forever work. This work, is exactly right for me in a million ways, and I really really wanted to share why. I also wanted to share this to connect and to maybe help someone else who is either working with an autistic birth worker, or looking to get into birth work as an autistic person.
Here are some things about being an autistic birth worker.
I have so much space. 90% of my work is home, behind the scenes. Creating, editing, writing. Designing customer experiences and honoring requests. Counseling clients through texts and emails.
The other 10% of the job, is exactly the right amount of social for me. Because I have so much time to recharge and manage my own needs at home, I am able to show up as my very best most capable self for my clients. I really thrive in the birth spaces and in client meet ups. The flexibility of this work, is incredible to me. It works SO well to meet my needs.
AND the way I work, is very different then I am "supposed to", let me explain.
From the numbers, to the marketing, to the blogging, to the conversations- everything is done with a soft feminine based energy. I work when I feel good. I rest when I don't. Every ounce of my energy that is poured into this business is poured from a full cup, from a rested cup, from a place that is love and energy and light. I don't work on any of this, unless I feel really good. Because that energy, seriously translates. I believe it is why my business is so successful. Because I built it on my terms in a way that pours back into me.
I get to skip over those parts of social expectations that I find difficult. Because this work is so spiritual and emotional, I don't have to worry about shallow level conversations aka small talk (which is challenging for me.) I get to focus on the deep stuff, the genuine conversation and open hearted chats. Those things, because I have hyper empathy, come easily to me.
Another thing about birth, is it doesn't have a lot of hidden language rules. People say what they mean. Birthing people ask for what they need. So I don't have to worry about taking things too literally or being manipulated. Everything is built on trust and care and support... and solid contracts haha. Now, I will say there is an exception when it comes to medical talk. Some of it is very double sided, and you have to study to understand birth. But honestly, everyone in the birth space regardless of how your brain works- needs to deeply study and understand things like what a cascade of interventions is, what obstetric violence looks like, and what doctors or medical personal really mean when they say certain things. But for the main people that I have relationships with, the conversation is authentic and uncovered, raw and real and deep and true.
One of the main reasons I thrive in birth, is because this work is my special interest. If you get that phrase, you get it. I thrive here.
Something that is important for me to say in this space, is that I never expect a client to change big things about their birth space, to accommodate me. While there is nothing wrong with asking for accommodations, birth is sacred and accommodations should not be anything that changes a birth plan or stresses the family or birthing person in any way. Sometimes, there are specific requests based on each situation, but my focus is always on meeting my clients needs first. The main accommodations I ask for, are very simple and very reasonable.
First and most importantly, is to prioritize communication. To be clear with their needs and boundaries, and to have a solid contact plan of when to call, when to text, when not to, and when to tell me to come join them in the birth space. Second, is that they allow me to rest along with them as needed, which is pretty standard for any spiritual birth worker especially in long births. I also ask that they avoid baking with or using cinnamon products due to a severe allergy. As you can see, these types of accommodations are not invasive. They are serving everyone, beneficial to each of us, and based in a solid partnership. I work for them, and they put their trust in me. All of that is taken with heart, with intention, and with openness on both sides in the best birther/birth worker relationships.
Honestly MOST accommodations are really this simple in any work place.
It is also really important to note that I am able to accommodate myself in births, without anyone else even understanding what I am doing. Its always quiet and dim, which is great for my sensory needs. I get to bring my own fuel (snacks, drinks, etc) I eat, drink, and rest when needed. I bring specific comfort items, wear specific things that will help me function best (sensory friendly!)
Birth is very intuitive, and its very on key with my own preferences. Also- I literally get to talk about my special interest, and operate within it constantly in these spaces- which is such a dream for any autistic person.
One of my more unique self accommodations is that I do not use flash. This is a huge debate in the birth photography world- some swear by it and use it at every single birth, and others don't use it at all. A majority use it as needed in dark spaces. Those who don't use flash make this choice because they believe it disturbs the birthing process. I am definitely sensitive to that. But the other layer of it for me, is that using flash is difficult for my own sensory needs, so I can't really imagine myself using it in a space where I am trained to protect the sensory needs of mother and baby. I am trying to become more comfortable with flash in normal life, just in case I ever need it, but I really don't see myself changing this accommodation any time soon for my birth spaces. When lighting is a problem, I try to make light in other ways. Opening a door and turning on a light in an adjacent room, lighting electric candles, bringing my own string lights that are always welcomed, and as a last resort in a quick moment of need- holding up the flashlight on my iPhone for 1-2 quick photos. All of this is done in partnership with my clients, and talked about far in advance.
One of the most challenging parts of birth work for me has been connecting with other birth workers. There is this whole layer of "competition" that I honestly do not believe in at all, but many people do especially if they started off in general photography before transitioning into birth and that makes it difficult.
It also is hard for me to work with staff members who are operating in any way that is disruptive to my clients space. Part of this is my training and education in birth, my decency as a human being- and then the other part is that whole layer of autism and problems with authority or understanding chains of command. We all know that in hospital spaces and even some home birth spaces, the doctor or midwife is used to being in charge, and I operate in a way that leaves the mother always always in charge. This has potential for conflict, and I have a difficulty managing my emotions when a doctor or midwife is being, well, abusive in any way. But this is understandable even from a nerotypical perspective I think. Even in an extreme case where I am struggling with my emotions, due to years of having to do it as a trauma response (bad) I am now able to mask it and show up for my clients as a skill (good). I am seriously excellent in crisis and emergency decision making.
Another challenge of birthwork is the on call time. I thrive in it because of the vastly varying lifestyle habits and routines, but it definitely has its challenges. The part that's the hardest about this for me, is that I constantly have to interview babysitters as others move or change jobs or have less openings for drop in or night care. I hate this part of the organization, and leaving my child with anyone is difficult for me. It can also be challenging when births end up back to back. While these are challenges, they are not deal breakers for me. I manage this with help from my husbands somewhat flexible job and by only taking 2-3 births each month at the very most. I also take off a month every single year in November to recharge, and spend time in my own grief and love within my family. (That month is special to us for many reasons.) If you are reading this in November, it was probably scheduled in advance haha. Takin time off is VITAL for every type of birth worker. If your not doing that- burn out is almost inevitable.
Many of the things I struggle with the most in typical workplaces, are eased here because of the style of this work. And when I do run into things that I struggle with, I know I only have to mask or push through for a short time. After births I sleep soooo much. Rest for days, and don't really push myself on anything until I feel recovered. It is such a luxury for me to be able to do this as a professional. That's the mindset shift problem talking- It's not just a luxury for me, it is a necessity. If I could take long healing respites every time I work hard, or perform highly, I might be able to manage doing any number of jobs. I am so glad this is a possibility with birth work, and is the main reason I am able to thrive in it.
I believe my hyper empathy and my ability to read the room make me such a good birth worker. I have difficulty understanding what people mean sometimes, but I almost have this sixth sense, where I can feel their emotions even if their words are saying something opposite. This can be great in a birth space, but in the real world- it often makes others frustrated with me because I see their intent despite what they are trying to say or do. This makes it difficult for others to lie to me, or to make me feel like what they are trying to get away with as a coworker or boss is "right", making me difficult to take advantage of. While I am still gullible, I am so good at reading intent. I will say this has been a skill I have learned through years of studying people. I could always feel everyones emotions, but understanding energies and intent was something I had to narrow in on. It used to just feel like a massive mess of too much feeling in every room I was in. Now, after years of inner work and intention and study in this area, I can apply wisdom and discernment along with experience to use it in a way that serves others and protects and nourishes my birth clients.
So far, every part of myself I have shared with my followers and birth clients- has only been met by love and kindness. I have in this week alone, been sent or told so many beautiful compliments. That they love the way I write, the way I have poured my heart into my website. That my words are like poetry. That the tangibility of my spirit and my trust in birth and birthing people- is so attractive and present and amazing. That my work is stunning, breathtaking, inspiring. That the authenticity in which I form my posts, my words, my life- is impressive and needed. That my voice matters.
Words that directly combat every doubt and every shame tainted discriminotory comment thrown at me in my life.
Being an autistic birth worker, works for me. I wouldn't know it any other way. I do believe that because of my Autistic needs, it has been easier for me to design and build this business in a way where I thrive because I have already practiced such intention and self permission in my own life. Because I understand the importance and necessity of accommodations, in a way that some people must burry in order to meet their own preconceived expectations.
I think the most important thing that birthwork has taught me as an autistic person, as a sensitive person, or even just as a person- is this:
Your people are out there. The energy you put out, will come back to you. People are attracted to the energy they desire, the energy they are creating and manifesting, and if you put out this peace, you are going to attract people seeking that same peace in their own lives. Not everyone is your ideal client. Or your ideal freind. Or your ideal family. Even people seeking your energy, are not always ready for it. Not everyone is going to value what you do, it is vital to set boundaries. It is okay to say no. Even if someone is begging for a yes. Your intuition is vital. With intention, smart work, and patience- you will find your path. You will find your people. You will find your souls journey and ahhh. When you do...
It is everything.
In my next posts I am hoping to address how to improve or begin birth work as an autistic professional, how birthing as an autistic person might look different, how to honor your nerodivergent clients, and how to create a birth space that works for you as an autistic or nerodivergent person.
Thank you so much for reading, for all of your comments and encouragement on my social pages, and in my inbox. My words are starting to really reach hearts and it is such a good feeling.
So much love,
-Your Wildwood Birthkeeper