I’m an autistic adult. I was also a generally well-behaved child. My mum had a near-endless supply of patience, and she had a few extra tools up her sleeve, coupled with an understanding–and total acceptance–that I was “different” from other kids, even if we had no clue how or why, back in a time when these concepts and attitudes were unheard of. My mum was truly ahead of her time, and for that, I’m eternally fortunate and grateful.
Life is not black and white, however. It’s not all roses, nor is it all raindrops. It just doesn’t work that way. 🙂
There were times when, despite her soothing voice and gentle distraction strategies, I simply acted up. She was astute enough to notice that I primarily acted up during Times of Trigger, such as twisted sock seams or an outburst coming from the unseen child in the next grocery store aisle. She was perceptive, but she was also powerless to stop my own outbursts sometimes.
She’s practically super-human, but there’s still a “human” element in “super-human”. Even saints are mortals, and all mortals have limits.
Parenting might have a scientific element to it, but I think it’s primarily an art. I wouldn’t know firsthand; I’ve never done it. But I’ve “had it done to me” (with a wry grin, tongue-in-cheek), and I’m rather astute, too. A lack of one’s own biological offspring does not automatically confer a lack of experience with children, nor a lack of imagination.
In other words, I can empathize, even if not directly. I understand, via the ability of observation, some of the hardship that goes with parenting.
Please allow me to illustrate the full story of where I’m coming from…
I thought long and hard about having children myself. In fact, I always assumed that someday, I would. I planned thusly for them. I researched and made decisions in advance, about birthing methods and venues, infant feeding and sleeping options, baby-wearing alternatives, vaccine schedules, circumcision or not, education and academics, extra-curricular activity options, and so on. I visualized what they might look like, who they might grow up to be, what they might do.
It’s not that I wanted someone to call me “mommy” or love me unconditionally. I didn’t need daytime company, nor an acceptable reason to remain out of the workforce. I didn’t even really have a biological clock; if it was ticking, it wasn’t doing so very loudly. It’s not even that I felt any pressure from, nor envy toward, any of my friends who were having–or already had–children. I didn’t get swept up in the frenzy of what some call “baby rabies” (another tongue-in-cheek phrase, this time with a wink and a smile). I didn’t go out in gaggles of “girl groups” to shop for baby clothes or nursery supplies.
Unlike what I observed from many of my peers, I took a very pragmatic approach. I didn’t melt over the ideas of Kodak Moments or Facebook photo albums. I ordered my Logic App to stay in the driver’s seat, to remain in charge, and to boot my Emotions/Hormones App out of the way if it ever tried to interfere with the driving. This is not a small commitment, after all.
I’m not saying that my thought process or my approach is superior to that of anyone else, of course. I’m just saying that my wiring works differently. I was rather ambivalent about having children; I didn’t dislike them, nor was I gaga over them; I just knew that if I wanted to have them, I had a limited time window in which to make the decision, so I had better give it some deep consideration. Because if I was going to do it, it was only going to be after much thought. I had to iron out as many details as possible. I was going to make all the important decisions in advance. I did not want to suddenly find myself at a crucial fork in the road, only to say, “well hell, I don’t know; I never thought of that.”
Either way, I wanted there to be no regrets. So I had to play out each scenario. To have children or not to have children? That was the question. And whether I decided to or not, what would result from each path? Would there be any regrets? And I wanted minimal regrets. I wanted to feel solid in the decision. I didn’t want to reach some point in the decades-distant future, find myself looking back, and saying things like “I wish I would’ve chosen the other option” or “I wish I’d known then what I know now.”
I can’t say that won’t happen, but because of the consideration I gave, and the forcing of myself to justify either option, I can say that the chances are much better that I’ll be satisfied, than they would be had I not gone through this “processing process”.
In my near-extreme pragmatism, I put off any idea of following through with the plan to have any children until we were truly ready–in multiple ways–to do so. As the stars would have it, that day (to say, “yep, let’s try to conceive”) never came. And that’s OK. It wasn’t meant to be. As a strong believer in past lives (and thus, future lives), I have the feeling that I’ve had children many times before, and that I will at some point again.
There was a time, in my younger and less-wiser days, in which I looked upon the parents of children having public tantrums/meltdowns (not interchangeable terms, but I use them both, because who am I to know or judge which is which, since they look identical to the outside eye?) with varying levels of disdain.
“Wow, they can’t control their child”, came the intrusive, unspoken thought. I was never the jerk who stepped in to admonish the parents or attempt to police their children for them. (For the record, I wouldn’t ever dream of doing that unless an unruly child actually caused me harm and the other details of the situation made it obvious to anyone that the incident was fully preventable.)
Sometimes there was also pity. Sometimes the pity was more of the condescending type, like “dang, sucks to be you”, but more and more often, it evolved into the more compassionate type.
I’m not saying I’m proud of all of these sentiments. I’m simply saying I’m human. I saw what I saw, I thought what I thought, and I believed what I believed. But people change, and I’m no different (from the rest) in that I’m different (these days).
Big, Embarrassing Confession Time: I used to hold the belief that at least a certain segment of the uptick in autism spectrum diagnoses were the desire of a certain segment of parents to obtain a “special” label for their child, in order to shirk most of the responsibilities of parenting and remain “lazy” and “inert”. I knew that there were indeed legitimate instances of autism, and legitimate parents legitimately trying to do the best they could. But I couldn’t help but wonder about a certain subset…
I’m sure that it’s not like that’s never happened. It probably has, involving a particularly tiny and particularly scummy slice of the autistic-child-parenting population. But I’m also sure that a vast majority of this phenomenon is urban legend, blown out of proportion on a handful of internet discussion forums involving the decision not to become parents (I won’t name them here).
But isn’t karma (or the Golden Rule, or the Law of Cause and Effect, or what-have-you) interesting? Nature, it seems, is not without a sense of irony…or twisted humor. Here I sat, a year ago, realizing the extent of the patience and strength of my own mother when I inadvertently screamed in her ear until she straightened out my sock seams. Until she checked out of that grocery store with the upset child in the next aisle, whose “vibes” I picked up on and unknowingly emulated. (I don’t think this was a desire to emulate; I think that the child’s noise was overwhelming for my own senses, making me uptight myself.) Until she was able to soothe me sufficiently and distract me effectively. Luckily for both of us, I responded well to her nurturing physical touch.
I’m not self-shaming here, either. Not in any way. I’m just telling it like it was, the way I experienced it. It was what it was.
The fact that I’m an autistic adult also means that I was an autistic child. Having discovered that a year ago, there are certain things I have become aware of–sometimes painfully so, and sometimes not.
I know that my mum often found herself at her wit’s end. I know that sometimes she ran out of options. I know she did the best she could. I know she did a fantastic job. I also know that she “cheated” a little (another wry grin and wink); she had extra tools and extra insight that was simply not common at that time, nor is it universal today. She had a strong background, both academically and in the field, of Psychology. She even went on to get a Masters Degree in “Special” Education (a term that I don’t think she’s a fan of, either); she wrote her thesis on different learning styles and how they should be accommodated in general settings.
She was not a fan of the hard-nosed parenting advice of the time, either. She was an independent mum who thought for herself, in a time before that was an acceptable strategy. She read certain parenting advice books, and then promptly gave them away, ascertaining that they were mostly bullshit; they ran contrary to her instincts, which were usually much more accurate.
And still, “despite” having all these tools, coupled with powerful intuition and being completely engaged…
…I’m “still” autistic.
I still get overwhelmed. I still get irritable. I still have meltdowns. I still yin-yang between splitting hairs and over-generalization. I still tennis-match between black-and-white rigidity and seeing shades of gray that might not actually be there. I “still” meet all the diagnostic criteria. I still confuse people, piss people off, fail to look them in the eye, stand with my arms crossed because it’s comfortable for me, sometimes totally oblivious to how other people might be reacting.
I’m now 110% solid about the fact that autism is not “bad parenting”. My own experience provided anecdotal evidence; it might be an anecdote, but experience is the best teacher, after all.
It happens. It’s not my fault, but it’s certainly not my mother’s, either. She was anything but a “refrigerator mom”. She was a loving, caring person who loved and wanted children, planned for them, dreamed about them, and did the best she could.
And now I know that, specific details aside, so are the vast majority of parents of children on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum.
Just like in my family, I know that when two different neurotypes try to swap information in the form of communication, signals get jumbled, messages get misread, hurt feelings can ensue. There’s challenge, difficulty, even hardship. There’s stress involved. I’m not blaming anyone, not even myself. It is what it is.
I get that. I’ve always gotten that. But this past year has been the most eye-opening and table-turning for me, which means that I now “get” these concepts on a whole new level. It’s not that I suddenly had a series of epiphanies…it’s just that a new filter has been added, one that helps me see the picture in more vivid color.
My admiration has taken the forefront and become deeper.
Life has a way of providing illumination…and it also has a twisted sense of humor. 😉
And I have a message for the other people who make assumptions similar to the ones I had made:
- Autism is not, by and large, an “excuse” to be “special”.
- Autism is not, in the vast majority of cases, simply a strategy for labeling a child so that a parent can simply “give up” and be a “lazy” parent. I realize that that’s what it might look like, to some. But it’s usually not what it looks like.
- A parent really does know their child best. Often not as well as the child themselves, of course, but much better than any outsider.
- Most parents really do try to do the best they can. All the time. Even if/when it looks (to others) like they’re doing “nothing”.
- A parent’s response to a child’s acting out in public places was likely developed over time; either they’re taking a route that eventually works, or they’re trying something new because everything they’ve tried so far hasn’t worked. They know this, but you don’t, so try not to judge.
- The parent has likely gone through an entire behind-the-scenes mental process to reach a place of acceptance of the often-inevitable public “scene”. What you may see as a parent’s indifference to a child’s outburst or parental incompetence is probably the result of this process that you aren’t (and couldn’t be) aware of.
- Meltdowns are not the same as tantrums, and they’re not the result of ineffective parenting, nor can the child help it or control it, nor can it be calmed or placated by a parent. It simply must run its course.
- Autism is a real, human condition. It’s a legitimate diagnosis and it does persist for life. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just different, and it can be challenging at times, for both the autistic person and their parent(s).
- Chances are really good that if you feel very strongly toward children who act out in public (as I did) because you find it overwhelming to your hearing or it incites an instant reflexive reaction, please do investigate the possibility that you may be on the autism spectrum, too. It’s quite possible–and quite common–to proceed into and through adulthood, without having so much as an inkling of being autistic. I should know; it happened to me.
(Image Credit: Kaiser Mony)