It’s a situation many parents of kids on the autism spectrum have experienced: you get to the store and 15 minutes into your shopping trip your child has a meltdown. They are crying. They are screaming. You are down on the floor with them but unable to help them get regulated.
Now picture the people around you. They are staring. You may even hear someone whisper, “If that was my child they would know better than to throw a tantrum like that!”
Except your child is not “throwing a tantrum,” they’re so overwhelmed by sensory overload they’re having a meltdown.
Unfortunately, hearing unkind remarks like these is not an uncommon experience for kids on the autism spectrum as well as their parents.
We reached out to parents in our autism community and asked them to share some of the comments they’ve heard regarding their parenting. Here are the types of remarks parents have told us they’ve encountered:
1. Comments about autism being ‘bad.’
Like any other disability, autism is not “bad.” Mighty contributor, Nora Burritt, who is on the autism spectrum said it perfectly, “We are not bad people. We are autistic, and we need to be seen and heard.”
Here are some comments parents have heard:
How horrible it must be to have an autistic brother.
He’ll never learn to [fill in the blank].
Is he high functioning autistic?
I can’t believe you had another child after him.
The brains of people on the autism spectrum are wired differently, which means they process information differently. Different does not mean bad.
2. Accusations that something must have caused it.
Sometimes when people hear a child is on the autism spectrum, they wonder aloud what caused it. The problem with this approach is it suggests autism can be prevented, or that the mother did something during her pregnancy to cause it.
Here’s what parents have heard:
Did he get it from the vaccines?
It’s because you didn’t breastfeed.
What did you do wrong when you were pregnant?
While there is still much to learn about autism, we know vaccines don’t cause autism and genetics play a primary role. The parent didn’t do anything to “cause” their child to have autism, most likely, it was in the child’s DNA all along.
3. Criticism that suggests their behavior is ‘wrong.’
Imagine being told your way of interacting with the world is “wrong.” This is what many kids on the autism spectrum experience. We expect kids on the spectrum to adapt and become “as normal as possible” and point out all the ways we believe they should change. Kids with autism don’t need to change; they are not “wrong.”
Here’s what parents have heard:
What’s wrong with him?
Are you doing a genetic test on your kids with autism to know what is wrong because you don’t want their kids to be like them.
No, they are not being bullied, it’s all in their mind because of the autism.
You really should seek psychological help because there is no way he will ever function as an adult and the sooner you accept that the better it will be for everyone.
4. Comparisons that rely on problematic stereotypes.
Media representation often falls short when it comes to portraying what it’s actually like to be autistic. Unfortunately, people who do not know someone with autism may only know what they see on the screen.
Here’s what parents told us they’ve heard:
Oh, is he like Rain Man?
Have you seen The Good Doctor? Is she like that?
Next time you watch a show with an autistic character, find out if the actor is actually autistic. If not, chances are it is not an accurate representation.
5. Comments based on myths like ‘all autistics have a special talent.’
Of course, kids with autism have talents, all kids do. However, thanks to films like “Rain Man,” some people think that all autistic people also have savant syndrome. Someone may ask:“What is his special talent?”
It is true that autism allows the brain to hone in and focus on particular interests, but kids on the spectrum should not be held to a standard where they have to “perform” to show their value. Savant syndrome is rare, and having it doesn’t make an autistic child “better” than their peers on the spectrum.
6. Remarks that dismiss your concerns.
Most individuals who are on the autism spectrum are diagnosed as children (and some as adults). It usually begins with a parent noticing certain behaviors in their child or seeing a lag in development that suggests autism. Naturally, parents may confide in family members or close friends. The problem is, these parents are often dismissed and made to feel as if they are overthinking or being irrational.
Here’s what parents have been told:
But he doesn’t look autistic.
She’ll outgrow it.
He is just really strange, not autistic!
If a friend or family member shares concerns about their child’s behavior, the only appropriate things to ask are: “What are you observing that makes you feel that way?” or “Have you done some research, what have you learned?”
If you want to go an extra mile, do your own research. Read books written by autistic authors, follow actually autistic individuals on Twitter or check out their blogs.
7. Spiritual platitudes.
It is not unusual for parents to hear spiritual platitudes. As a matter of fact, this may be one of the most common things parents of kids with any disabilities hear.
The most common comment people hear is “God gives special kids to special parents.”
Parents of kids with autism are ordinary people. Comments like these hold parents to a higher standard and can become an excuse not to offer support.
Mighty contributor, Adam Morris, who is a pastor, described it best:
My wife and I will be the first to admit we are not part of some exceptional brand of humanity. We get stressed out about caring for our little guy sometimes. We get tired. We become impatient. I can assure you, we are just like any other parents.
– Ellen Stumbo, The Mighty
Image source: Carl Mikoy, Flickr