Something is missing from the lives of autistic children.
If the insights I am gaining from adult reports of their childhood are any indication.
Growing up I truly believed my family hated me and could not wait to get rid of me,
did not want to hear from me, was not interested in anything I had to say, how I felt,
what I thought. I believed they looked for reasons to try to hurt me, to shame me, to humiliate me, to cause me emotional pain and to punish me. I learned to be wary, defensive, self protective, afraid and anxious.
I still remember vividly almost every incident in which I was treated this way . To be fair, my perceptions might have been skewed due to my very poor visual and audio processing, which did not allow me to experience anything in “real time”. I was not equipped to understand a thing I saw or heard (human interactions face to face or in any person to person settings such as family interactions, school classrooms and free time association with others, watching tv, movies, or today watching you tube or other online visual and audio presentations). Nobody knew or understood about autism back then. I do understand (now) how it happened.
I remember family sometimes said they loved me, but in day to day experiences it was very difficult to believe. I remember my sister asking me if I believed I was loved, and I replied that I believed my mother when she said she loved us. That’s what she said, one did not doubt mother!
But I never felt loved. I never understood the concept of love. Nobody ever explained it. I could not see it, so I could not feel it. Looking back, I can see signs ( now ) of concern and caring, but at the time of my family and youth experiences growing up, I did not see or understand. Nothing in my childhood was ever explained. I was simply ‘told’ and had to accept whatever i was told, and accept it immediately, whether it was good or bad.
I rely on my autistic brothers and sisters on several forums to give me insight and understanding of how my autistic life experiences compare with others’.
I rely on insights they provide to make adaptations or adjustments in the way I see my world. They explain much that has remained hidden to me all these years. I asked on a couple of the larger forums (over a thousand members in each) this question.
“When you were growing up , did you feel loved?”
Hundreds of answers poured in over a period of days. If the answers I got were any insight, the majority (approximately 19 out of 20) reported that they did not feel loved. I was not alone!
I had suspected as much due to the large number of posts with memories of difficult struggles and cruelty reported of childhoods past.
In other conversations, Autistic parents swear they will not intentionally make their child feel unloved, uncared for, ignored, or cast aside, isolated or as though they were being discarded.
I believe it is human nature for parents to want life to be better for their children than the childhood they experienced. (but I don’t know many people who had happy childhoods).
I then asked a follow up question and asked the people who gave me insights to answer another question. “if you grew up unloved, what could have changed to make you feel loved?” and
” If you grew up feeling loved, what do you think made you believe you were loved”?
Overwhelmingly, the answers to this question were so moving. First of all, many of us needed to feel safe. Many of us remembered frequent emotional or physical punishments, criticisms, pointing out of weaknesses and scoldings, never feeling free to be themselves, feeling the anger, disgust, contempt and revulsion of their family members and just waiting for the next round of attacks on their bodes and or their psychological/emotional existence.
Most said they wished they had been listened to, encouraged, had explanations or discussions about so many aspects of life, had been approved of, had been included in family activities, had been at least sometimes the focus of loving and kind attention, instead of being ignored, criticized, cast aside or isolated.
One point brought up over and over, was being kept from family outings, family events, family activities that other siblings were included in.
I remember being sent to my grandparents, who did make me feel loved and worthy and who encouraged me, engaged me, and were kind to me.
I was in about 4th grade when I finally realized that the weekends I spent at my grandparents were weekends that family outings without me happened. I got full reports from the sister next younger, about where they went and what fun it all was. When I protested, and asked whi I could not have gone too, I was told “you had your special time with grandma and grandpa”.
The weekends when my siblings went to visit grandma and grandpa, the rest of us stayed home.
Many others had similar memories. Not welcome in my own family circle to do the fun things they did. What message does that send?
I think I really did not understood about all the facets of love and all its implications or the ways it is shown. I know I tried to make my own children loved, and as young adults, they report I succeeded in that. Somehow that is so precious to me. Of all the things I longed for as a child, to feel I was loved was at the top of the list. I never felt I succeeded with my parents or my siblings. Love may have been present but I did not experience it. I did not believe it. How much of my experience and its interpretation was the truth, and how much was my processing struggles and my autism keeping me from understanding???
I have struggled, as many autistic folks do, to sort my emotions and understand them.
Not until my learning about my own autism, and examining my previous experiences through the understanding of how autism has affected everything in my life did I have more than crumbs of understanding taken from clues in my early life, and most of it I “got wrong” or was incompletely informed. It is a lot to digest, it is a lot to understand. I am still working on sorting it out.
I hope that autistic children today are getting explanations about everything, the nature of things that are not black and white cut and dried in life, things like emotions- love, hate, how they can happen in a relationship at the same time and what it means. How emotions work, how to recognize them, how to understand other peoples’ emotions and what to do about it all.
Parents of autistic children, please keep explaining everything… what, how, why, when…. it is so important your child’s understanding of the world, their place in it, and to their sense of self and their perception of life as it unfolds around them. Don’t assume they understand what seems evident to you. I am fully intelligent, and I can learn, but sometimes I need to have the nature of things explained. In the case of those with auditory and or visual processing struggles, a lot that is evident to neurotypical people can be missed or misinterpreted.
Take time, explain everything. Your children will thank you some day.