Protecting human rights in childbirth

Autism Awareness Day: guest blog by Hayley

Birthrights research in 2013 and 2018 found disabled women reported poorer experiences of childbirth than other respondents. They told us they:

  • received inadequate information about their choices more often than other women;
  • were unhappier with the availability of pain relief; 
  • felt they had less choice and control over their birth experiences;
  • felt that their rights were poorly or very poorly respected;
  • only 19% of women (2018) thought reasonable adjustments had been made for them and some found birth rooms, postnatal wards, or their notes and scans “completely inaccessible”.

On World Autism Awareness Day, we’re really pleased to publish two guest blogs by Emma and Hayley, which shine a spotlight on the challenges faced by autistic women during pregnancy and childbirth. They show why listening to women, respecting them as experts in their own needs and enabling this through continuity of carer – underpinned by a human rights approach – is so vital.

The autistic birth experience is not necessarily an inherent part of public discourse around birth, disability and health care. Yet, despite evidence showing that autistic people have been part of society for millennia, there is a dangerous lack of awareness about how autistic people give birth.

To take advantage of all the useful narratives and information swirling around social media during Autism Awareness Month, bringing this much-needed topic to the public consciousness is long overdue. I have written personally for years about my experiences of birth and parenting as an autistic woman – my first birth as an undiagnosed woman was certainly a lesson in bad practice, my second birth was overwhelming empowering and positive. However, I hadn’t changed. I was born autistic. How could the same person experience pregnancy and birth so differently, even when the pregnancies themselves were very similar?

My first pregnancy was an unpredictable force of nature, a tornado of failed expectations and instability, created by a health service that had never (knowingly) cared for an autistic woman. But they weren’t alone, I was unaware of my own neurotype and struggled to identify why I wasn’t experiencing the blissful autonomy and self-confidence other new Mums had. From the moment I read my positive pregnancy test, my hands and arms flapping like a happy sparrow in a dust bath, my expectations were rooted in media depictions of pregnancy and birth. The intimate, reliable rapport with my midwife was something I had been told was my destiny, but this story was not to be. With no continuity in care, I never saw the same person twice, deeply exacerbating my problems with social communication and difficulty with changes to routine.

Once I developed Gestational Diabetes, the lack of autonomy over my body intensified. Where, like many autistic people, I relied on fact-sharing as a basis for my conversations, creating visible frictions in medical appointments that I couldn’t understand. What I could understand, however, was the numbers. Black-and-white, controllable blood sugar levels that were my anchor in a sea of discourse built for neurotypical mothers. These were tiny acts of sacrifice, where I tried to claw back my dignity as a Mum-to-be with no other way of expressing it.

This echoed along other symptom-reporting, too, particularly pain. As my recent systematic review of existing evidence showed, autistic people experience pain differently. In terms of touch, cold and heat we sense these things far sooner, whereas deep ‘true’ interoceptive pain is something we have a higher tolerance for. Further work suggests that if sensory preferences are taken into consideration, pain communication and reporting is improved.

However, my birth plan suggestion of ‘no lights, no music or shouting’ was ignored. Coupled with problems in initiating conversation, this gave an overall sense that I was lacking any choice, any dignity over my pregnancy and baby. “The NHS owns this pregnancy, not me” was something I remember telling my husband during the first precious days at home after birth.

What Emma and I want to work towards is that no autistic woman is at a disadvantage because of who she is. We do not want to blame autistic bodies, autistic brains for the problems. It’s a lack of education and awareness on female autism presentation and co-occurring conditions that would lead the way to improvements here. With examples of good practice models available with Mental Health Specialist Midwife roles, we intend to provide training to midwives and doulas across the UK. Autonomy over your birth experience is something we want to put back in the hands of autistic women, as a basic human right.

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