What Not To Say to a Parent of an Autistic Child
As the prevalence of autism increases, many are finding themselves in conversations with parents of children with autism and not knowing what to say. People are good. They want to say the right thing. They want to encourage. They want to offer hope. My son was diagnosed with autism seven years ago and it has taught me how wonderful people truly can be. In their efforts, though, sometimes the things they say have the opposite effect of their intentions…
1. "He can't be autistic because…" I heard a million reasons why Casey couldn't be autistic when we were in the process of getting him diagnosed. They ranged from "He just looked me in the eyes!" to "He's nothing like Rainman!" Parents have a hard enough time coming to terms with their child's diagnosis all on their own. We spend months saying those very same things to ourselves. Then we get to a point where we know that what we are doing is right and seek out help. Having to constantly defend what we are seeing is taxing during a time where we don't have much left to give. Autism comes in all shapes in sizes. It's a spectrum of abilities and disabilities. It's never the same in two children with the same diagnosis.
Instead, say: "I'm new to autism; can you tell me more about it? What's Casey's autism like for him?" I love when people ask questions. It means that they are stepping outside of the stereotypes they know and are really wondering what autism means to us. It means they care and they want to learn more about my son. I don't expect everyone to be an expert on every diagnosis out there. What I needed most was for people to just be there for me. After Casey was diagnosed, one of the greatest things said to me was, "He's still the same kid he was the day before he was diagnosed."
2. "He'll probably grow out of it." It's been seven years since my son was diagnosed. He has not and will not grow out of it. He was born this way and his autism is a huge part of who he is and what makes him amazing. He has achieved so much through his hard work and through the talents of many amazing teachers and therapists, and he will continue to be autistic. Saying he'll grow out of it discounts the hard work he has or will do. It also discounts the many good things his autism adds to who he is.
I want people to accept Casey for who he is, autism and all. I love it when people accept his quirks and even embrace them. My friend Erin has always done this. For a while after we first met, Casey would greet her by running headfirst into her. So she would turn around and do the same thing to him. It made him giggle uncontrollably.
I love it when people embrace him. I love being asked what Casey likes. I love it even more when people ask him what he likes. Anyone who is around Casey for longer than ten minutes ends up loving him for who he is, and that's not in spite of or because of his autism. It's because he's a great kid.
3. "I read that autism is caused by…" Please. Please don't tell me that you've found yet another study that says it's the mom's fault. Please don't post it to my Facebook wall that my being a little overweight or my living by a highway caused my son's autism. I feel enough damn mommy guilt as it is. There is a new "study" published every week. I'm a fan of good research. The problem with these studies is that they are correlational. Correlation between two things does not mean that one caused the other, as is erroneously implied. More and more, the cause of autism looking to be all genetic. But, if you're slightly masochistic or just enjoy a good argument, mention either side of the vaccine debate. See how that goes.
4. "I heard that you can cure autism by…" Oh, you are stepping into a minefield with that one. This has to do a lot with number three, above. We don't know for sure the cause, and there is no cure. In fact, using the word "cure" in conjunction with autism pisses A LOT of adults with autism off. They like who they are, autism included, and do not want to be cured of something that makes them who they are.
Beyond that, there are too many shady doctors out there peddling snake oil treatments at an obscene cost. The "treatments" range from the benign waste of money to just downright dangerous. You can find everything from bleach enemas (I kid you not, ask Jenny McCarthy!), hyperbaric oxygen chambers, chelation, to funky saunas (You know, because people with autism love being enclosed in small, dark and hot rooms). Too many times people, whether they be celebrities who think they are doctors or doctors who care too much about being a celebrity, act as if you're not doing everything they are doing, buying every one of their expensive and unproven treatments, you are not a "warrior mom" and you're not trying hard enough for your child. I'm sorry, that's bullshit.
Most parents go to great lengths to treat their child's autism and to give them the best chance at being their best selves. My son has had speech, occupational and physical therapy since he was 18 months old. We tried alternative diets, but they didn't work out for my son. These were never in an attempt to "cure" him, but to help him have the best chance at success, however that comes to him.
I'm always grateful that people are paying attention to autism related stories. It's really nice that people care enough to want to have a dialogue about autism. I'd much rather have you say though, "Do you have any favorite books about autism? Where do you go for your information?" This is so much better than inadvertently making us feel like we caused our child's autism and now aren't doing enough to cure it. (On a personal note, if you say to me that "Jenny McCarthy cured her son, why haven't you?" You're likely to get punched in the throat. )
5. "You're my hero!" "God knew you could handle this!" "Special kids for special parents" and other such platitudes. I swear there will come a day that I roll my eyes too hard at one of these that they'll get stuck inside my head. I get that you're trying to be nice. I get that you think you couldn't do what I do. I know you want to think that there's something amazing about me that gives me the ability to handle having a child (or two) with disabilities. But there is nothing fundamentally different about me than any other mother. I am a normal mother in an abnormal situation. I do what I do because I have to, and you would too if you were put into the same situation.
I cannot emphasize this enough: special needs kids aren't sent to special parents. Some parents are amazing without even having a kid with special needs! Some parents just plain suck, and some of those do in fact have kids with disabilities. I am not some sort of hero. I have not been endowed on high with some sort of powers that make me any better at parenting two children with special needs than you would be if you were in the same circumstance. Like with anything with parenting, you learn as you go. You make mistakes. You cry, scream, swear and start over the next day. Saying that I'm some sort of hero puts me on an impossible pedestal that I don't even care to be on. I am a normal mom in an abnormal situation. What I need you to say is, "How can I help?" This is the not-so-secret secret very few parents of children with disabilities will tell you: we aren't perfect. This is hard. We need help. We need a break. We need sleep.
If nothing else, a very simple, "You're doing a great job!" goes a long, long way.
6. "____________ " Way worse than saying any of the items from the list above is saying nothing at all. Autism can be a very isolating disability, for both the person with autism and the family members. It makes getting out and doing family activities or sports very hard. Socially speaking, we are taught and subsequently teach our kids to not stare at and to ignore someone who may be behaving in a way that seems weird. Not surprisingly, teaching someone to ignore a person that behaves differently a lot, ends up leaving that person ignored completely.
In writing this list, my greatest fear is that in telling you what not to say, it would make you afraid to say anything at all. That is the last thing I want from this. Most parents of children with disabilities are perfectly comfortable talking about our kids. We are every bit as proud of them and their accomplishments as you are of your children. Talk to us. Ask us questions. There is nothing you can say if you are well-meaning that could ever be worse than saying nothing at all.