This mom became an autism awareness advocate during the pandemic

"I found that sharing my story with others was incredibly healing."

This mom became an autism awareness advocate during the pandemic
Kathy Heath

[Editor's note: This article is part of our Pandemic Parenting series, where we profile mothers about how the pandemic has affected their families. If you would like to share your story, please visit this link for more information.]

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America, mom-of-three Kathy Heath was looking forward to returning to the workforce when her youngest child started pre-K.

After devoting years to staying at home with her children, Heath was excited to carve out time for herself and her professional goals.

But then the pandemic swept across the globe, changing life as we knew it. Not only was her daughter's entrance to pre-K delayed, but her two older sons began virtual schooling, practically overnight.

"When COVID hit, the responsibility of school fell on me," Heath told Motherly. "Of course, it fell on me—I'm the stay-at-home parent. It was just like, 'oh ok, well everything you were about to have the freedom to do—it has to go on the back burner yet again.'"

Like so many parents around the world, Heath quickly adapted her own career goals to prioritize her family's safety during the pandemic.


She says her oldest child, a 10-year-old boy, is the most aware of how the pandemic has changed their lives.

"He gets kind of frustrated by coronavirus and knowing that there's really not much we can do to prevent it, outside of handwashing," she says. "He's much more connected with his friends through technology, so that part has been easier for him," she adds.

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Her youngest child, a four-year-old daughter, had been looking forward to starting school and making friends of her own—until the pandemic happened.

"She always had friends that were brothers' friends and then she finally had this opportunity to have peers. She was so disappointed that she didn't get to have her own friends."

And then on top of that, Heath added, visits from any friends stopped completely as the family began social distancing.

Out of all her children, the pandemic has impacted her middle child the most, says Heath.

"My middle son is eight, and he's on the autism spectrum. He is working really hard to learn the nuances of friendship and communication. The pandemic has affected him the most because he has lost all of his extracurricular activities that gave him the opportunity to practice those skills. When you're on the spectrum, you're already quite isolated so this has really put him even further behind. It's been sad to see because he is actually quite outgoing and deeply wants those connections."

She also said that her son was supposed to have a few assessments related to his autism right before COVID hit.

"It was time to update and see where he's at now, see what's changed. We still have not been able to do that, which is really unfortunate for him and for his teachers at school."

Her son was also taking swimming lessons, which were helping with his safety and gross motor skills, as well as his socialization. But again, they were canceled because of the pandemic.

"He loves to be around other kids and he learns so much from watching other people and picking up on their communication. It's such an incredible learning experience for him and now it's gone. I think he really misses that so much," she adds.

During the pandemic, Heath found a new avenue for her professional and personal goals: She became an autism awareness advocate.

"Autism diagnoses have really increased in the past few years," she explains, "so there's a lot more parents experiencing things that I have experienced. I found that sharing my story with others was incredibly healing."

In an essay for Motherly, Heath wrote, "Autism has allowed me to realize that motherhood isn't about making the life you imagined a reality. It's about confronting your greatest fears and challenges, while the love for your child grows stronger in the face of them.

"My attitude has shifted from showing up from a place of expectation to showing up from a place of acceptance. I might not have all the answers, but I am leaning into my intuition. Letting go of needing to know the next ten steps to move forward, and embracing that just one or two is enough. It has opened me up to all of the possibilities life offers, even if they don't feel comfortable at first. Committing to this motherhood journey, knowing that I am enough."

Although the pandemic began with her disappointment over delayed professional goals, Heath is now finding fulfillment in helping families from around the world.

"The more that my message gets out there, it seems to get to parents of all kinds of families," she says.

Heath says that the pandemic has impacted families' access to therapies and programming for their children. When you factor in the demands of parenting without any support, it can feel overwhelming.

"I think that's the same for all families," she says. "You're not getting that informal support so your caregiving duties have just been full-on. There's no respite for that and there's no time to take a step back for you. That's been really stressful, missing that support, be it formal or informal."

"That's been a real strain for people," she adds.

Heath says that she's spent much of the past year trying to stay positive and help her children thrive.

"I was devastated that [working outside the home] became such a distant reality for me. However, I was reminded of how much I enjoy spending time with my kids, and how special their bond is when there isn't much outside interference put on their relationships. I started to see it as a way to enjoy their childhood in a way I wouldn't have otherwise been able to, and I relaxed into it. I thought this time would be really stressful for them, so I decided to make sure I wasn't stressed and set a good example of letting go of the things we can't control."

Heath says that her marriage has gotten stronger, too, as she and her husband had to lean on each other during the pandemic.

"We really stepped up for one another. I think it's really helped our relationship as being a team. We always were, but this has tested so many aspects of that."

"And for the kids, they have a really strong bond because they don't have anybody else to play with," she says with a laugh. "They were forced to spend that time together. They've really strengthened their bonds as siblings and that's been really nice to see."

[If you would like to share your story in our Pandemic Parenting series, please visit this link for more information.]

Jamie Orsini is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, military spouse, and a mom to two busy toddlers. In her spare time, Jamie volunteers with the Solar System Ambassador program with NASA/JPL and reads anything she can get her hands on. She’s currently working on her first novel.

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