Rachael Williams is based in the United Kingdom and her oldest son, Christopher, is on the autism spectrum. On her blog, Christopher's World, her fearless spirit shines through every story about her family's journey. Despite the challenges she's faced — from postnatal depression to public scrutiny during her son's breakdowns — she has some optimistic advice to share.
Tell us about yourself and your son Christopher?
Hello! My name is Rachael Williams, I'm 24 years old and married with two sons — Christopher soon to be 3 and Jacob soon to be 1. I'm currently working toward a Science and Health degree and I am just so devoted to giving my little superhero the best possible life I can. Christopher was diagnosed with ASD at 25 months old. As much as it was a shock to the system, I had known in my heart from when Christopher was as little as 4 months old. The only shock was that it was our first ever meeting with these specialists and we did not expect to walk away with a diagnosis, especially when people fight for years for their voices to be heard. Ever since then I made it my mission to make sure that my son was heard, despite the fact he's non verbal. But it's true what they say, actions speak louder than words and it’s not a case of "I want" — remember these words clearly, "I WILL BE THE VOICE OF THE VOICELESS!"
What was the journey of your son's autism diagnosis, and did you face any challenges along the way?
At the beginning, when I first shared my concerns about Christopher being autistic at 4 months old, everyone was calling me crazy. And when people say it to you enough, I think you actually start to question yourself. That being said and done, as Christopher was getting older his routine and care needs where changing and people couldn't understand why I had to do things as and how I did them — like make sure the bottle wasn't too cold and not too hot, make sure the TV volume was on really low, having to call our days out to an abrupt end because I could see a meltdown arising. People would question my parenting and that's hard to take when you know you’re doing your best. Especially if I had let my child have an uncontrollable meltdown, I'd be branded a terrible mother. Yet, to leave and take Christopher away from the situation or not make anyone else feel uneasy, I was also a terrible mother. You just can’t win. When Christopher was 1, I was hell bent on the fact Christopher was autistic and I wouldn't have anyone say otherwise. I'd put up with enough of what other people were saying and what people were calling me for a suggestion as strong as this one. But if I hadn't expressed my concerns, years down the line people would have still questioned my parenting. So I feel like you can't win. I went to my health visitor and told her my concerns. Within 5 minutes of being in his company, she sat me down and told me that she can see what I'm seeing and she would refer me on to the relevant professionals who have all been fantastic. As I said, we got a diagnosis at 25 months old — a month after his first birthday.
It’s humorous though, and definitely made me change my outlook on life because people who would call me horrific names or lecture me on how I was wrong would then say "Oh I'm glad you're now getting the help" and would want to now associate with the kid who was remarkably diagnosed with autism at 25 months old. Which I feel is for their pastime and gossip rather than being any use to us as a family because they don’t offer to help us. Yet, they will make it known how they know this child with autism at such a young age, even though they doubted me from the beginning.
That was a hard challenge to deal with but it gave me a backbone and it gave me the fight and it made me realize that this is my family going through this and I won't have them treated how they treated me. Not that I feel I'm outspoken, I just feel like until my son can use his own voice to stand up for what he believes in, I will be his advocate. I made a promise to a little boy the day he was born and that was to never let him down. I'll go to my grave knowing I've done everything I can for him. The only challenges I would say I face is the ignorance or people who are not aware of autism, and how it affects millions of families across the world.
It's fantastic how honest you are on your blog, Christopher's World — covering everything from postnatal depression to judgmental parents. What inspired the creation of your blog?
I really do believe that honesty is the best policy. Although what I'm saying may not be popular, what I'm saying is my truth. My journey. My experience. My life as I know it. People feel the need to express their opinions in such a way that you think to yourself, "What do you actually know? Yes, you know my child is autistic but what the hell do you know about what is going on behind closed doors at the end of the day?" Their opinion is not my reality and that's something I’ve had to work on. It upset me because as I was doing the school run smiling and waving at everyone and being polite on my journey, I was actually crying inside. Jacob, my youngest child, was around 6 weeks old when Christopher was diagnosed. As fantastic as the health professionals are, they don’t educate you on how hard the future is actually going to be. You are then sent on your way as though it's another normal day and then as the days go by you start to notice floods of appointments for your child are coming through, 2 to 3 at a time each day — "You need to go here, you need to go there, this that and the other."
Now my husband is in the military and was sent away literally days after. As much as I had support of friends or family, it has to be taken into consideration that they have their own families and lives to attend to. I begged and I pleaded to the Army that I needed Craig at home to help me with this 6 week old baby, my autistic child, and all the appointments I had to go to (as you can imagine going out in public is not as straight forward as you think and children don’t travel light either). But they had none of it. Craig was sent away, and it was hard. Someone would stop me in the street for a normal chit chat and ask how I was, and I was sobbing, but at the time I couldn't understand why. Obviously now I know I had postnatal depression. As the weeks went on, the harder I was being on myself — to the point where if I didn’t hoover my floor, I was breaking my heart crying because I felt like I didn’t want to let my kids down while their father was away with work.
Thinking back now, it still breaks my heart how not once did anyone from Craig's work, such as a welfare officer at the time, knock on my door and say “Hi Mrs. Williams, we understand that your husband is away and you've just had a baby and your son is autistic, but just so you know we are here should you need anything.” It made me feel even more worthless.
My breaking point was when Christopher was having what I think at the time was an epileptic fit on the side of the road and then a meltdown. A man, A FULL GROWN MAN took the time to stop his car and shout to me, “If you can’t control your kids, you shouldn’t have any.” With that I walked home angry — how dare he? He has no idea that my husband had been away for 5 weeks and I had a 8 week old baby. My son was having a fit, and also having a meltdown because he is autistic. And I had just been diagnosed with post natal depression. That's when i decided my voice and my children's voices needed to be heard, that is the honest truth. My soul laid bare, my heart on my sleeve, I'm wiping the tears writing this. To have been made to feel and treated the way I have, when all I have done is put my family first to the point where I neglected my self. I went to counseling and saw a doctor because it was never a case of wanting to hurt myself, I was just emotionally beating my self up. That is just as bad as physically hurting your self, so I found therapy in writing and my outlook changed from that day onwards. Now I hold my head up high and say "MY SON IS AUTISTIC AND WHAT!!!!!!!!!" If you want to stare, then do so. If you want to make nasty remarks under your breath, then do so. It says more about you than it does me and having the attitude I do is my safe place and that is what gets me through each day.
How was raising a child on the spectrum shaped your marriage and what are the biggest lessons you and your husband have learned together as parents?
My husband is the most amazing husband in the world. He's my best friend. My soulmate, my everything. If having a child on the spectrum has taught us anything, it has taught us just how strong we are and that material things do not matter because love really does conquer all. We are so committed and devoted to our children that it's made us stronger than ever. It's us against the world! We never get a "date night" — maybe once every 6 months. But in a way we are grateful, as this makes us appreciate it even more. I know men can be a pain, I often refer to craig as my third child. But appreciate the little things, the big things and the smelly things like a fart in the bedsheets, because we don’t actually realize how lucky we are. Ha ha.
On your blog, you share some more candid advice for parents, writing:
"Is it normal to feel guilty having more children? Speaking from my own experience, this was a question I asked myself. My eldest was diagnosed at 25 months when my youngest was 6 weeks old and I felt so guilty...It is normal to feel guilty, but don’t. Life is a fantastic gift."
What other advice would you share with families touched by autism?
My advice would be look at it as a gift rather than anything else. As silly as it seems, I like to look at it this way. People say it's lucky when a bird decides to empty it's bowels on you, some would question how that's lucky because now you have bird poo on you. But I think out of the millions of people it could have pooped on, it was you! You were the chosen one! If you can look at autism like that then I say anything is achievable and the world is your oyster. You were given this gorgeous bundle of joy because you can do it. Because you're amazing. Because not everyone can handle this rollercoaster of emotions. But you were chosen to and that to me is amazing. Don't worry. Trust me, you've got this!