Our kids may have autism, but they’re not aliens. They’re human. They feel all the same emotions, follow roughly the same developmental path, and try all the same ways to influence their parents as other kids do. And like typical kids, they can be pretty vocal when expressing their feelings.“I hate you!” “You don’t love me!” “I’ll run away from home!” “Then I won’t eat anything!” “You don’t understand me!” “Nobody likes me.” “You’re ruining my life!” “I’m never coming out of my room again!”
As parents of kids with autism, we really monitor our kids’ lives. If they have a bad day at school, we want to know why. If someone says something mean, we want to know if there’s full scale bullying go on. If their grades dip, we’re ready to call an IEP meeting. Because of the level of severity of our kids’ challenges, we have to be hyper-aware and very proactive. Our kids need us to. But sometimes this extra-vigilant attitude can get us into trouble, too.
We’re always looking for reasons for our kids’ behavior, and sometimes we don’t look to our kid first. We want to know who or what triggered that behavior in our child. So when our kid says the same rotten, hurtful things that all kids his/her age do – a lot of times we blame ourselves. “If he says he hates me, I must be doing something wrong. I’m not showing my love in a way that my autistic child can see it.” “If she says she won’t eat unless I turn the TV on, I’d better turn the TV on because she’s really obsessing about this.” We assign their behavior to their autism and therefore feel like terrible parents if we’re not giving our children enough support that they don’t flip out and say hurtful things. Or worse, we change what we expect from them. We stop asking them to do whatever it was that triggered the outburst, even if what we were doing was good for them.
That’s when we have to take a step back and ask ourselves the age old question – “Autism or brat?” Is our child’s behavior due to his autism or is it the same brat behavior that all kids go through once in a while? Is what our child saying a red flag or is it something we just need to live through? How seriously do we take it?
My point isn’t that our kids are saying hurtful things in order to manipulate us. Sure, they might be – they’re not dumb; they can learn to manipulate their parents like any other kid. But more than likely, they really do believe what they’re saying at the time they’re saying it. They feel like no one likes them, or that you don’t love them, or they may really hate you right then. I’m not discounting their feelings. I’m just saying that what they’re going through is often the same thing that all kids their age go through.
So, when your kid whips out one of these zingers, don’t freak out. Don’t ignore it – we really do need to keep an eye out for depression, misunderstandings and obsessive ideas. But don’t immediately assume that your child’s attitude is a huge danger sign either. Sometimes our children are just living through the emotional rollercoaster that we all had to endure while growing up. Remember, they may have autism, but they’re still kids, too.
A final note: if you’re having a hard time figuring out whether your child’s attitude is normal or if you need to intervene, talk to a therapist who knows about autism and knows your child – even if you have to go find one. Figuring out why our kids do what they do isn’t easy. Sometimes we need all the help we can get.