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With her new “survival” guide, writer-mom and autism activist Susan Senator C’84 G’85 shows how to make the most of the unexpected life.



It’s another day at the neighborhood park. Quinn, the hypercharged kid whose mom you met in childbirth class, is running in 10 different directions at once. And then there’s your own two-year-old, sucking his thumb and refusing to climb out of the stroller. When you coax, he cries.

You know Russian history, enough to fill an unpublished novel and a thesis on Tolstoy from your grad-student days at Penn. But your firstborn is a mystery. It’s not just the fact that he startled so easily as a baby, but how he lines up his toys only to stare at them. “A little genius” the pediatrician calls your son, because he can recite long passages from The Velveteen Rabbit. But ask a simple question like, “Want juice?” and he just parrots the words back to you.

Finally, you are given a name for his quirks: autism. You think of children spinning on the floor and banging their heads. You think of Rain Man. You think of countless doors closing.

“There was this horror based on ignorance and fear, but also a validation,” recalls Susan Senator C’84 G’85, a mother of three and the author of two books on parenting a child with autism. After her oldest son Nat’s diagnosis at age three, she explains, “This was what I thought: that for the first time as a new mother, I was right about something. What I had been seeing wasn’t about me. It was something about Nat and his development. This kind of release and horror came together at the same time, followed by Now what?”

If Senator could have written to her younger self, she would have counseled that the world was not ending for her son or her family. “I would want to give myself a pat on the back and say, ‘It’s going to be OK. It’s just going to be different than how you first imagined it.’”

Though she can’t go back in time, Senator has been passing along her encouragement, wisdom, and stumbling to other parents through her blog (, articles and essays, and books. Her latest one, The Autism Mom’s Survival Guide: Creating a Balanced and Happy Life while Raising a Child with Autism, explores topics like self-care, connecting with one’s partner, and letting go—concerns that could apply to any parent but which have a special resonance for autism moms and dads.

Senator got the inspiration for her survival guide while on tour for her first book, Making Peace with Autism: One Family’s Story of Struggle, Discovery, and Unexpected Gifts [“All Things Ornamental,” Jan|Feb 2006]. People would come up and ask her questions like, “How do you even have a life? You’ve showered and you’ve put on makeup, and yet you have this situation in your family.” As a result, she began thinking about how many “autism moms” (and dads) “seem to have put their lives on hold” as they struggle to make sense of the condition, pursue new therapies, and find support for their children in the school system. She talked with parents to see how they had found balance in their lives and come to a point of acceptance. All of this, Senator makes clear, is a work in progress.

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COVER STORY: Notes to a Younger Mother By Susan Frith
Photography by Jared Leeds

©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette



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