today, comparing “how it is” with “how it was”
We need to do better. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and nobody knew about
autism. I was raised with physical punishment and shaming, a harsh critical judging hand
or voices if I “blew it” when growing up. Spilled milk, bumping furniture or accidentally
running into other people, dropping things, mistakes in judgement or expressing “inappropriate”
thoughts or behaviors, using certain words, tones of voice, looking people in the eyes (yes, I come
from a culture which said it was insolent of a child to look at an adult when spoken to, especially
when scolded (“don’t you look at me like that!”)
Anything I did or said or didn’t do, I was locked into a ‘system’ that looked for errors and was eager to shame, chastise, scold, scorn, hit and hurt. Those are my strongest memories of my childhood. If there was love or compassion, it certainly did not register. Was it them or me?? Or both?
Is today’s child any better off?
Early diagnosis could be so useful! First the child is forced to go to compliance classes where they learn everything they do is wrong and that they have to tolerate everything any adult does to them, and taught that their only escape is to comply. They learn to be eager to please in order to avoid the constant pressure and distress and get the rote ‘treatment’ over with as soon as possible. Kids undergoing this “therapy” are resigned to their fate. There is no escape, no comfort, no way to avoid any demands. They learn to endure, to abide, to wait until they receive directions before they choose to do anything at all because that is safer than what happens if they don’t do that. Do kids like this have time to explore their world freely, to have new and exciting experiences, to try new things, to get stimulation and input from things that are of deep interest to themselves? Or is today’s therapy all about making the individuals ‘fit the mold’ just as I was at home and in school so many years ago. I don’t think as much has changed as it might seem at first.
I worked as a volunteer in a resale shop a couple of years ago. On a quiet day when nobody else was in the store, a young boy around age 10 came into the store with his grandma. He had his hands in his pockets, was rigid with tension and full of anxious movement.. he began to walk fast through the store, exploring without ever touching a thing.
Grandma called after him. “Tommy come back, stay with me or I will never take you shopping again” She scolded and warned him all through the store, giving similar threats. We will never do this again if you don’t “……” this minute! I could see he was anxious and also curious about what was in the store to see. He clutched a wallet in one hand. He had money to spend! I assured grandma several times that he was fine, that I was sure he would hurt nothing, that he was being a responsible citizen and I started helping her see him in one of the side rooms, hands still in pockets, just examining something on the counter. She sighed and said, ” it is so hard, he is autistic!” Did she expect he had grenades in his pockets? Did she think he was going to assault or rob somebody? What was so hard about his behavior and his presence in this situation? I could not see her point and told her he was doing just fine. I made sure he heard me defending him, too. 😉
After he discovered a little box of fossils, he wanted to make a purchase. She must have reminded him 3 times to look me in the eye. She seemed to despair of his behavior and told me he had an obsession over rocks and fossils. ( how trying! that happens to be one of my own passions). She was appealing to the wrong court. 😉
I asked her if he had ever been fossil hunting at our local park, where there are many interesting specimens to be found. Grandma had no idea. I asked to talk to the boy for a moment. He sat rigid on the steps nearby waiting anxiously for grandma to finish her own shopping. I sat a couple steps below him and asked first,” is it OK if I sit here a minute and talk to you? ” He said OK. I asked him if he might be interested in going fossil hunting at the quarry? Did that sound like fun? He said he would like that..
I told him I wanted to leave my name and phone number with his grandma so they could arrange with me to go fossil hunting with him and whatever friends or family members wanted to come along. He thought that was a fine idea.
I went back to grandma (who knew me from previous visits to the shop although we are not actually friends) and explained that I was a fossil collector too and how I would enjoy taking Tommy and whoever else he wanted to bring on a fossil hunt.
Evidently he had not gone on a fossil hunt before. The family instead was trying to discourage him from bringing home nasty, dirty fossils and rocks and trying to get him to do something productive and meaningful instead, maybe lessons on a musical instrument or summer camp for example.
I gave grandma my phone number and email along with my name and asked her please to pass my invitation along to the family, telling her the boy had already confirmed to me that he would like to do this.
Maybe that was not the way to go about issuing an invitation. I am not great on protocol of issuing invitations. I never heard from them, and never saw grandma or grandson in the shop again.
I wonder if the boy will ever get encouragement to feed his passionate curiosity. I wonder if he gets enrichment in any way besides whatever is convenient for the rest of the family. I wonder if he is told over and over “you are autistic so you have to do this ” make eye contact” etc etc etc .
Pointing out his autism to everybody and making it the focus of his presence is not any better than the labeling my family gave me of incompetent, stupid, mean, thoughtless, clumsy, etc etc etc… only now there is the added stigma of saying he is autistic AND all or any of those things.
What good is early diagnosis if the outcome is just the same as it was for me all those years ago when nobody knew? I see very little difference.
The only advantage with early diagnosis might be that the child could defend himself by saying “i can’t help it, I”m autistic”… which may breed a whole new set of behaviors and problems.
We have to do better with the tools available to parents with young autistic kids today. Kids need to learn they are cherished and valued and appreciated, not just labeled and seen as something that “needs work” to be OK and right in and of him/her/them selves.
How can we get families involved in such a way that the autistics in the family are every bit a part of the family, every bit as cherished, every bit as respected and cared for?
I am sure there are families out there where this is happening, and I am sure that there are many caring parents working hard to give their autistic children every advantage in a loving and supportive way.
But I think there is something deeper, something that needs to be found in raising an autistic child. That is to see the individual behind the struggles, to speak to them and explain everything possible regarding their autism and their care, their strengths and how plans are made to support and address their weaknesses and to tell them when new things are being discussed, including them in the decisions made when changing anything about the child’s situation, conditions, struggles, strengths, school or medical programs, etc.
It goes back to “nothing about me without me”. Not all children will be ready to share feelings, ideas, thoughts, and desires or give other input, but please understand the well known phrase “nothing about me without me” is applicable to family matters and matters relating to an individual in a family situation too. First and foremost I am a person. I may be your child, with a child’s understanding of my world, but I need to know I am important to you, and that you care, too, about my feelings, thoughts, wants and needs.
I will not be likely to understand, I will be frightened, I will fight, I will resent, I will not ever feel loved, cared for, or appreciated if I am discussed like the family cat or the houseplant on the shelf, with no acknowledgement of myself as an individual with thoughts, ideas, feelings, and opinions of my own. If I am suddenly thrown into new situations, classes, treatments, therapies, or programs without discussion, explanation, warning and preparation. Inclusiveness begins at home. Is your autistic child really a member of the family? Or is he or she first and foremost a burden, a pain, a responsibility, a tragedy, an annoying intrusion, useless, valueless, disappointing, and inconvenient? What does your child believe about himself and where do you suppose those ideas came from?