Ntokozo Kalako on balancing corporate life as the mother of an autistic child

Those with autism experience difficulties in social situations, with verbal and non-verbal communication, and have an under or over sensitivity for sounds, smell and touch.Picture: Hiki App/Unsplash

Those with autism experience difficulties in social situations, with verbal and non-verbal communication, and have an under or over sensitivity for sounds, smell and touch.Picture: Hiki App/Unsplash

Published Apr 12, 2024


In the spirit of World Autism Awareness Month, which rolls around on April 2, Ntokozo Kalako, a remarkable woman with roots deeply planted in the rural terrains of Cala in the Eastern Cape, shares a piece of her life that’s as captivating as it is enlightening.

In an exclusive piece, Kalako opened up about balancing her career with raising her 12-year-old son, Solly, who is on the autism spectrum.

As a single mother and a Xhosa native, she finds herself at the crossroads of the corporate world and the personal journey of parenting a child with autism in a society where awareness and understanding are still growing.

In honour of Autism awareness month I have drafted a piece that shares my insights of balancing corporate as single autism mom and unique challenges that I face in the African community where societal understanding of autism is still evolving, says Kalako. Picture: Ntokozo Kalako/ Supplied

“Being a mom to Solly, my 12-year-old son on the autism spectrum has been my greatest teacher,” Kalako confessed.

“Creating a balance can be particularly challenging at times. There have been times when I have had to leave meetings and rush to my son’s school to attend to emergencies that relate to his health issues.

“This can be complicated if your work environment does not foster flexibility, and if you are not completely honest about your child’s needs to your employer,” she added.

“My son has taught me the importance of practising a routine, which has helped me thrive in managing my schedule at work. This way I am able to manage his needs at school, attending his therapy sessions, medical appointments, as well his extra murals.

“My number one tip is to learn from your child and understand that your circumstances at home are normal. Children on the spectrum love to know what is going on and are not too keen on surprises, so let your child know what you are doing on a daily basis.

“For example, on my work-from-home days, Solly knows mommy has a meeting on Thursdays at 11am.

“With this on his radar, he gets on with the tasks that I have prepared for him for the day. If he is on holiday or when he gets home from school, the first thing he will ask me is how my meeting was.”

As the world marks Autism Awareness Month, Kalako’s story is not just about the challenges they’ve faced but also about the opportunities to educate and foster understanding.

“Before Solly was diagnosed in 2013, autism was a word that didn’t have much meaning in my life.

“But as I dove into the world of parenting a child on the spectrum, I realised how crucial it is to embrace cultural sensitivity — for our mental health and for the well-being of our children.

“It’s about opening up dialogues, about being ready to educate those around us in our social circles. It’s about understanding and patience.”

One of the hurdles they encountered was language. Solly’s world was a dance between the English used in speech therapy and the Xhosa spoken at home.

“It is essential to celebrate and preserve their linguistic diversity while supporting their communication needs. It took Solly three years of speech therapy to get his first word out at the age of five.

“Today he speaks three languages, so I encourage parents to be patient.”

Connect with other parents. Share experiences and strategies for support.

She shared: “Prioritise self-care to navigate the unique challenges of balancing career aspirations with the demands of motherhood and autism parenting.

“Seek out support networks, engage in stress-reducing activities, and practice self-compassion to sustain your well-being and resilience in the face of adversity.

“I have a mom support group that meets once a month and we all have children on the spectrum. This group is my lifeline. It is so important to find other moms and lean on them for support. Tap into community resources and support networks for families affected by autism in your area.”

Engage with autism advocacy groups, and access therapy services.

You can also visit Autism Resources South Africa, a newsletter about autism parenting that also stocks sensory toys. It is very important to build a holistic support system that addresses your child’s unique needs while empowering you to thrive in your career.

This may include childcare arrangements, therapy services, respite care, and family support networks that cater to both your professional and parenting responsibilities.

We have been actively doing play therapy with Michelle King, who specialises in children on the spectrum. These sessions build positive social skills for Solly.

Champion awareness and advocacy

Take an active role in raising awareness and advocating for greater understanding and acceptance of autism within your workplace, community, and beyond. Be brave and challenge stereotypes to promote inclusive practices that celebrate diversity.

"As we celebrate World Autism Month, let us reaffirm our commitment to creating a more inclusive and supportive world for individuals with autism and their families, bridging cultural divides and fostering acceptance, understanding, and empowerment for all.

Together, we can navigate the complexities of balancing work and motherhood, while celebrating the unique strengths and contributions of every individual, regardless of neurodiversity."