What Not To Say to a Parent of an Autistic Child


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.

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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.

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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. )

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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.

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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.


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  1. The Mean Mama says

    Such a refreshing read! So thrilled to find a mom who takes life for what it is. I have an aquaintance who is fighting her son’s austism like its a battle that can be won or lost. After his diagnosis she proclaimed all immunizations evil (she ignores the fact that her addiction issues could have caused bigger problems), then insisted he not be labled autistic (so everyone labeled him a behavoiral issue) they have tried hyperbaric chambers, diet, etc with no change in behavior. Sad thing is, is that the only obvious difference between him and his siblings is he doesn’t sass back!
    Kids are who they are, embrace them and enjoy them (unless of course they just aren’t nice kids, regardless of disiability)
    Thanks again for a great post!

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    • Lexi Sweatpants says

      Thank you. When Casey was first diagnosed, all I wanted is a cure because I didn’t want to have a child with special needs. This is a terrifically vulnerable time for parents, and it gets exploited time and time again by shady doctors, junk science, etc. People will stop at nothing for a cure- even when we know there isn’t one.

      I feel bad that I was that person. That I thought for even a second it was immunizations, because that information isn’t just not credible, it’s dangerous. I’d encourage your friend to read “The Panic Virus” by Seth Mnookin. It goes over all of the vaccine vs. autism debate. It’s REALLY good.

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      • The Mean Mama says

        I think I will read the book and then give a subtle reveiw where she will hear or read it. She gets very defensive, but after fighting autism for 10 years instead of embracing it, defensiveness is probably a safety zone. Thanks again!

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  2. Arnebya says

    Regarding #1, I can’t tell you how many people STILL refer to Rainman as their first reference toward “knowing” someone with autism. I’ve never understood the lumping people into categories. Even iwth an autism diagnosis, you’re right; each child/person will be different. It makes me think of stupid people who ask where I live, then ask if I know [random person] because sure, all black people know each other (and like malt liquor. This is so not an accurate analogy, huh?)

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  3. Debbie says

    Thank you Lexi for sharing what to say to parents of children with a autisum. We all need to know what to say, so we don’t blow it.

    All people (and children) are special in our own wonderful way. I have a cousin that has Wilsons disease which affects the nerves system. My hat goes off to her, because even with her own disables she takes care of others with disables. It is totally amazing what she does.
    Thanks again for sharing, it is very much appreciated. I would hate to get hit in the throat for saying the wrong thing. :)

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  4. Laura says

    This is fantastic. Thank you. I suspect the parents of any child who doesn’t fit the societal definition of “normal” understands what you’re talking about.

    You left out one thing not to do which has driven my (dwarf) daughter NUTS: Staring and pointing and acting like the person and/or their behavior is somehow worthy of being in a circus sideshow. People with disabilities or are people first, and being treated like a person is what everybody wants, regardless of their differences!

    Thank you again for this wonderful post!

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  5. Kelly says

    I have a son with autism. I’ve come to realize that constantly being upset or offended at what people do or do not say is a waste of time. You’ve set up quite a difficult needle for people to thread when talking to you–don’t say the wrong thing, but also don’t be silent. When someone says something uninformed, I simply tell myself that they are just that, uninformed, but likely well intentioned. I don’t expect people to walk on eggshells around me. We as a culture in general need to learn to let things go. Life has become a minefield of who might be offended. If someone is saying something with good intentions and not intending to offend, we should be able to let it go rather than internalizing it or demeaning the person who said it.

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    • Lexi Sweatpants says

      I agree. I don’t carry this stuff around and genuinely write it off. Like I said in the article, I know most people don’t know what to say and are trying to be kind.

      But here’s the thing, if we don’t start speaking up and saying “hey, this can be hurtful to parents of kids with autism” how will they ever know? Why not educate? Why not let people know what TO say, as I’ve pointed in the piece.

      This is why I write. To help people understand the way *I* see things and what helps along with what doesn’t. I appreciate your response here, because I believe that we DO need to give people a pass who are just trying to be nice. I think in the special needs communities (my daughter has Down syndrome…so I’m in a lot of communities) we are too oversensitive. That doesn’t mean that we can’t help people understand better what we’re going through.

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      • Angela says

        Thank you for posting these points! Our son was diagnosed with autism at age three. He’s always had movement tics, off-and-on verbal tics, and is very high functioning. It is extremely disheartening when people try to tell you “at least he’s not as bad as….” Looking from the outside in is much easier than helping your child cope with certain behaviors.

        We constantly hear the refrain from certain family members that “he’ll grow out of it…” or “that’s just a boy being a boy.” We only recently have felt some support from family after a family member watched him over the weekend with his sister. Again, thank you for posting!

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        • Reta Brosnahan Saffo says

          My son, whom is mildly autistic, is now 24. And, although some may not want to hear “it’s just a boy thing”or “he’ll probably grow out of it” the fact is (in our case, at least) that he did. He did indeed grow out of much of his autistic behaviors– and a good deal of it was indeed just him “being a boy”. He quit the stimming around age 11-12 (twirling/spinning). He learned to self regulate and self modulate more and more as the years went on.

          His frustration levels diminished more and more as I would immediately remove him from any and all frustrating situations (such as uneducated teachers, bullies in the classroom, impatient relatives, ignorant sales clerks, etc). It wasn’t easy for me, I will say– and I worked my butt off. I had no problem losing friends, neighbors or even relatives over this kid of mine… and I blasted any ignorant person every chance I could (they will never be the same for having encountered me– that’s for sure)! In fact, I became quite disliked in our small community of Mission Hills, Ks. But– this is my son, my disabled child, we are talking about here. A person. A person that has to make it on his own one day– alone. I did what I had to do regardless of who liked it– or not! I am lucky in that it never meant that much to me to mean that much to anyone else (except my child). Some parents are not so fortunate. Are self conscious. Popularity means a great deal to some/most. My son saw my fight for him– my plea for better education of teacher’s and staff member’s.. and more basic human decency… and compassion (it made him proud inside)… and he slowly became a much calmer kid than most his age. I think it soothed his anxiety to know I was behind him 100% … no matter what.

          He saw, on his own, that his little peculiarities and social awkwardness were preventing him from making or maintaining friendships– and were also making life a lot easier for all the bullies out there (including teacher’s and principal’s). There were hours and hours of tutoring each and every day after school. It took time– and lot’s of it, no doubt… but he did grow out of much of his autistic behaviors. The psychologists and psychiatrists said he could very possibly grow out of much of them (along with a little help from medication)– and they were correct! He pretty much did! It was a long, tough journey with him, and a great deal of effort (mostly on my part) that produced an absolutely beautiful young man!!! Yes, he still is a bit “different”… and he knows it. In fact, he takes great pride in being unique (I love it)! But, as he says: “I’d rather be me– any day of the week, than anyone else I’ve ever known”. And he means it. In seeing the way most young men are today— I feel the same as he does. I wouldn’t want him ANY OTHER WAY than autistic! And I mean that.

          I’m not saying it was easy (God know’s it nearly killed me). But– it’s almost as if it was all a blessing in deep disguise (at least in our situation). He attended two years of college in Putney, Vt (for LD students), studied abroad in Chile for a semester, worked in Yellowstone Nat’l Park for a summer– and just now got his own apartment about 20 miles from our home (in New Mexico). He is so well loved and admired by both his peers and employers alike. Wow!! We did it. Together. My tongue sticks out to all those who thought (and secretly hoped that perhaps our work would all be in vein). It was not. No, it was not. Wooo-hooo! :)))

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  6. Keli says

    My question is, why do I (or anyone else) have to acknowledge it at all? You want so badly for your child to be accepted as normal or for who they are. This, to me, is exactly what’s wrong with the world. Like judging a person you see in the street with 100 tattoos, or pink hair. In plainly accepting a person without addressing their “differences” we are able to accept the differences we all have. Let it go.

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    • Anna says

      I was ma’am’d by a young guy with 100 tattoos. I was just tickled to death by that :D. Everyone else standing in the checkout line were trying not to get to close to him because he looked rough, and then he called me ma’am. I haven’t been called ma’am since my Marine Corps days and it just made me smile. I was busy checking out his tattoos and didn’t notice that the line had advanced until he said something. I complimented his ink which made him smile.

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    • Angela says

      Hi Keli,
      I think so many parents (including me,) try to help others understand why a child isn’t acting as they should. Whether it’s because my son’s yelling uncontrollably or fixating on something relentlessly, we want others to feel more comfortable. When you don’t explain what you’re doing or why your son is behaving “oddly” as some people think, you get many strange looks. I don’t go out of my way to point out he’s a child with autism, but I do mention it if people start giving me funny looks.

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  7. Rebeccah says

    What I know about autism is not much. What I do know, is that this post is amazing. Honest, reasonable, relative and real. You have done your son and others in similar situations such a service by writing something so great. Thank you very much for sharing!

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  8. Christie Tate says

    This is helpful because I don’t know what to say. I’ve blundered before and I hope to remember you words when I am in this situation again. Great writing.

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