What's your superpower? One of mine is that I’ve always known what my son is thinking and feeling, at least 90% of the time. We are simpatico, have always been, since he was an infant. As he grew into a toddler frustrated by his own twisted sentences and nonsensical words this connection was invaluable – necessary – as it was in the following years when he had the wherewithal to ask "Mom, what is the words that I'm meaning to say?"
Several years back, when the diagnosis still felt new and heavy and confusing, I caught myself saying something that I realized, as he grew, could have been demeaning to him. It's the type of thing that almost every Autism parent utters at some point.
"I'm sorry [for his behavior.] He has Autism."
I'm sorry. I had new-to-autism-parenting syndrome.
I'm trying to think of the best way to illustrate the wrongness of this very common statement. As most of my audience are women - you know how it feels when your significant other does something that makes you grumpy, and they respond by asking if you're PMSing?
Imagine being out in a store, and people are stomping on your toes, yelling in your ear, and shining lights in your eyes. You naturally get defensive: "What the hell? Get off me," then your husband loudly proclaims "Please excuse my wife. She has PMS."
In one statement, your experience of having your senses assaulted and you being overwhelmed is invalidated and belittled. So is your personhood.
If you apologize for your child's behavior and used Autism, that's what you just did.
A little girl says "Look at me, I'm a princess!"
Her dad hangs his head in shame, biting his lip. "I'm sorry," he mutters to the stranger next to him. "She's a girl."
A little boy is stimming and making odd happy vocalizations that feel normal to him.
His parents blush at the rude stares. "I'm sorry, he has Autism."
Don't apologize for your child being themselves. It's demeaning. And they can hear you.
Oh, I hear you. Sometimes the temptation to explain the odd behavior can be overwhelming when people are being rude. It's just so much easier to say it and hope the words shut them up. I mean, it's the truth. Your child does has Autism and this does come with different and defensive behaviors. But here's my question, and one to be honest about before you say "he/she has autism."
Does the person you’re telling need
Does your child need them to know? (If so, consider discussing it out of earshot and unapologetically.)
Or do YOU need them to know? Does your pride need to utter the words to salvage itself? Is the interpretation in truth "I'm not a bad parent. Really I'm not. I'm ashamed for a stranger to even think I'm a bad parent, but my child's Autism-specific behavior makes me look like a bad parent."
I'm not unsympathetic. But if there's anyone who needs to grow a thick skin, it's a parent, and this is 100 times more true of a parent of a child with special needs. If you're confident in yourself it wouldn't matter what anyone thought. If it matters, you have some introspection to do.
I have confidence though, that most parents would choose their child over a stranger. I feel that if more people stopped to think first what it could sound like to their children's ears and heart, they would prefer the world to think them bad parents than to throw their child's feelings under the bus.
Yes, I would pull my screaming child out of a restaurant to try to calm him. I will deal with the rude stares and try to shield him from them. Been there, done that. No, I wouldn't pull my stimming child out of any place, and would simply tell someone to back the hell off if they said anything. BTDT as well. You don't have to defend your right to exist, or to take your child out to public places, so stop doing that.
I'm not saying there is never a time to tell a stranger your child has autism. I'm also not saying there's never a time to apologize if your child truly invaded someone else’s space (as it can happen with any child,) we do have manners!
I'm saying don't apologize that your child has autism.
Especially within earshot.
Of course I have told people of my son's condition. I have asked him to wait for me while I tried to “fix” an issue that was crucial to his world. Ask for help if you need it. But when it comes down to the small details, don’t forget the big picture.
The stranger with the rude stare in the waiting room has to go home and live with herself. You get to home and live with the person you love best, and your child needs to know that you’re in their corner no matter what happens. You have to choose them, again and again – over saving face, over one of the 7.5 billion people in the world thinking whatever they’re going to think of you, over pleasing your parents, over your fellow church members' opinions, over everything. Be aware of your words; that you don’t demean your child or demonize his/her condition. They’re listening, and what you say matters.
Gaynell Buffinet Payne