Personally, I’d love to blame all my kid’s difficulties on autism.
Wouldn’t that be convenient? If no matter what my child did, I could say that it wasn’t his fault and it wasn’t my fault – it was because he has autism? “Aww, I’m sorry my son spit on you, Mrs. Teacher. But he has autism, and autistic kids do that sometimes, especially if something triggers them.” Then she’s say, “Oh, that’s okay. He’s a sweet kid and I’m sure he didn’t mean to spit on me. It just happened.” I could nod my head and give her a tissue to clean up the spittle, then as any good, supportive mother would do, offer to help her take a look at her classroom and the way she runs it, so we could figure out what she did that made my kid spit on her. Then we could make sure she didn’t do it again. My son would be a good kid, and everyone would be happy. Wouldn’t that be nice?
You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not – well, not by much.
First, let me say that I don’t have any experience with kids who are severely affected by autism. I have no idea what they can and can’t do, so in this article I’m not talking about them or their parents. I don’t have the knowledge to offer a legitimate opinion on how to help them or their families.
In this article, I’m talking about kids who are mildly or moderately autistic, Asperger’s, high functioning, PDD-NOS or similar. I’ve worked with hundreds of these kids, their families and educators, and trust me when I say that in doing so I’ve seen a troubling trend.
Some of us are crippling our children.
We’re doing it out of kindness and the goodness of our hearts, but we’re crippling them nonetheless. We’re teaching them that autism has made them incapable of controlling themselves.
We don’t say that in so many words. Instead we tell people, “Oh, I’m sorry that happened. But you know, he has autism,” and we leave it at that. Like autism is a get-out-of-jail-free card. That if we wave it around enough, society will excuse our child’s behavior. Not only is that delusional on our part (because society won’t, especially when our kids have grown out of the cute, little tyke stage and into the six-feet-tall and hairy stage), but it’s also damaging to our children.
When we use autism as an excuse for our child’s behavior, we’re telling our kids that not only do they have no responsibility for their actions, they’ve got no control over their actions either. We’re saying that autism is bigger than they are – that it runs their life. We’re making them slaves to their autism. We’re training them to believe that no matter what they do, they can’t change their life to make it better or improve themselves. We are instilling a self-defeatist attitude that they may never get over.
Imagine the following, that one of our now grown autistic sons gets a job. He likes his job. His co-workers know he’s a little odd, but he’s a good worker so they accept him. Then one day something happens and he loses his cool. Major meltdown. Throwing things and yelling at people. Eventually he calms down. He apologizes and says he has autism. His boss has sympathy for him, but can’t afford to have an employee who may injure his other employees. Our boy gets fired.
So, what does our young man do next? If he believes that he has no control over his autism, he may go find another job, but sooner or later a meltdown will get him fired from that job, too. And the one after that, and the next one. Eventually he’ll get fired often enough that he’ll decide that due to his autism, he is unemployable. He may rant that people don’t understand what it’s like to have autism, or that employers are unfair, or he may believe that he is defective. Wherever he lays the blame, the important part is that he will quit trying. He’ll file for state assistance and live in poverty for the rest of his life.
(I am not making this up. Go lurk on message boards for folks with autism and read it for yourself. And while you’re at it, look up how much disability pays – it’s not much.)
Let’s look at another instance. What if instead, our young man was taught from his early years on, that he is responsible for his actions, whether or not he has autism? What if he was taught to recognize his areas of strength and weakness, and that through hard work he could either overcome his difficulties or find a way to work around them? If he had the underlying belief that although autism made his life difficult, he had the means to make his life better? How would this young man react to being fired from his job?
Hopefully he’d try to figure out why he had the meltdown in the first place. Maybe that job was a bad fit for him – too noisy, too much social interaction required, too fast-paced or whatever. Maybe he needs to go talk to someone about learning to control his temper or anxiety better. Maybe in the future he needs to self-disclose more and perhaps ask his boss for supports. If our young man has the attitude that he has control over his life in spite of autism, he will eventually be able to find a job where he excels. It may not be his first job or his tenth job, but he will keep trying until he finds a way to succeed. His life may not be easy, but he won’t end up sitting at home, cursing humanity, or believing that he’s a broken individual.
So how do we teach our children this attitude, this belief that they can succeed?
We hold them responsible for their actions. We help them learn about their strengths and difficulties. We teach them that they have control over themselves; that even though it may be very hard for them to control themselves, they are capable of learning how to do it. We teach them to ask for help when they need it and where to go to find it. We help them learn from their mistakes and celebrate their successes. And we instill in them that they are smart and capable, that we will help them learn what they need to know, and that we won’t give up on them, no matter what.
And if they spit on people, they get in trouble. Even if they have autism.
I am not delusional. I know that autism can’t be wished away by the power of positive thinking. No matter how hard we and our children work, there will always be some aspects of autism they struggle with. To teach our kids that autism is something “they can get over if they try hard enough” would be setting them up for a lifetime of feeling defective – of never being good enough. Autism causes real problems in their lives. To ignore those problems damages our kids. But teaching our kids that because of autism they can’t control any of their problems, damages them as well.