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Confessions of an Overprotective Mom

Photograph by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez

Confession: I'm an overprotective mom. Well, maybe it's not a confession to those who have seen me with my 9-year-old son Norrin.

Over the years, I've heard: "just let him be," "stop smothering him" or "give him space." I've read article after article criticizing moms like me. Moms who can't stop hovering. Moms who are unable to let their children go. Moms who are seen as doing a disservice to their children. Moms who need or want to still be needed.

But here's the thing: I don't want my 9-year-old to still need me. I don't want to be a hover mom. I HAVE to be.

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Seven years ago, my son was diagnosed with autism. In those early years while the other moms at the playground were content to step back and watch their toddlers on the sidelines, I still stood nearby.

Just as kids were learning to pump their legs on the swings, I still had to push Norrin. Teaching him how to swing independently meant physically moving his legs through the motions until he gained the strength to do it himself.

And while he can navigate the playground fairly well on his own, I still stay close by. Norrin is not always aware of his surroundings or the other kids around him. If another kid asks him to play, Norrin may not answer him so I stay close to prompt his language. And if I'm being honest, Norrin is getting older and his autism is more obvious now that when he was younger. When he was younger, Norrin was considered "shy." At 9 years old, his peers see him as "weird." So I hover because sometimes kids are mean.

While walking in the street or in crowded places, I hold his hand or wrist because if I let go and he gets lost, I'm scared I won't be able to find him. While Norrin is verbal and knows his name and our contact information, I don't know if he'll know where to go if he needs help.

Wandering is a genuine fear for me, and it is for many other autism parents, too.

My parenting has been criticized. Usually by people who have no idea what it's like to raise a child with autism. All they see is a kid who should be taught to know better and a mother who lets her kid run wild.

Children with autism spectrum disorder are eight times more likely to "wander" between the ages of 7 and 10 than their typical-development peers. Letting go is not an option. So I hover because I worry. And some see that as being overprotective. I call it keeping my child safe.

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Photograph by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez

Then there's the flip side of it all: those moments when I do feel safe enough to let go and let him be. And who he is, is a 9-year-old kid with autism. He's a big kid who doesn't always have control over his body. He's impulsive. He moves too quick and doesn't always stop when I ask him to. He doesn't always understand directions the first, second or third time.

And on some of those occasions when I've allowed Norrin some freedom, strangers and friends have judged him and me harshly for his behavior.

In those moments of judgment, my parenting has been criticized, usually by people who have no idea what it's like to raise a child with autism. All they see is a kid who should be taught to know better and a mother who lets her kid run wild.

Because my parenting has been called into question, I'm often tougher on Norrin than I want to be. Things that other "typical" kids may get away with, I don't let Norrin slide on, just because of his autism. Do you know how many "typical" kids I see pushing in the playground or cutting the line at the water park while their parents are nowhere to be found? Part of my hovering is to ensure Norrin knows right from wrong.

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I'm slowly learning when and where I can let go and when I need to stand by. I'm learning to ignore everyone else. It's a constant balancing act. I want to give my son the room to grow, to be as independent as he possibly can. But I also want him to know that I'm here for him when he needs me. And sometimes that means hovering because he doesn't always know when he needs me.

No one ever said parenting would be easy. And since there's no one right way to be a parent, I do what's right for me and for my kid.

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