“I'm so sorry." That's a reflexive statement I've heard countless times from well-meaning moms at the playground to moms of children with autism. And it stings, especially because I am, in fact, autistic and have worked as a speech language pathologist primarily with autistic children for well over a decade. The statement is rooted in empathy, of course, but expressing such empathy upon learning a child is autistic only highlights that these well-meaning moms do not understand what it means to be autistic. Behind the apology is the internal belief that because the child is autistic they are not wholly human. Autism has taken away their humanity and has thus taken away their ability to enjoy life and to be treated as a valuable member of society. And the other moms at the park would never say these words out loud, but we know these beliefs are circulating within them.
These types of internal beliefs make it next to impossible for the autistic child to ever be fully known, included and valued – and this is not, of course, intentionally done by those other moms at the park. It’s important to remember this. They are not villains or monsters, but they’re perpetuating a lot of unnecessary pain and missing out on getting to know your truly wonderful, autistic child.
And it has to stop. It must. None of us deliberately want to impose harm.
Here are some myths I’ve witnessed or experienced about what it means to be autistic.
1. You don’t have to be Rainman to be autistic. Let’s put aside the notion that you should be a white male with a superpower in order to be autistic. Sure, being able to calculate the number of spilled toothpicks sprinkled across the floor in under two seconds is neat and even possible for some, but this is a very limiting depiction and almost puts a performative pressure on autistic individuals. It should go without saying that people with autism are part of all races, gender, hair color, height and age. Some are savants like Rainman and some are not. There is not always something “extraordinarily cool” that an autistic individual can do, but there is always something extraordinarily cool to learn about each autistic individual. Do that.
2. The child or adult is autistic, they don’t “have” autism. To be autistic is an identity as well as a disability. It is not a disease. Many members of the autistic community prefer to be called “autistic” and not called “a person with autism” because of this. *Please note some do prefer you say “person with autism,” so if they say that, then do so. It’s all about respect. Don’t be an ass.
Sometimes I’ll catch people whispering, “They have autism,” when chatting with me, and I tend to loudly retort, “Oh! They’re autistic! Great!” The key thing to know is a neurodivergent brain operates in a different way than a neurotypical brain. That’s it. There’s no tumor nor malformation occurring within, it is simply a different working brain.
3. The autistic individual still has social desires and needs and can even be socially competent. I’ll never forget sharing with a friend about an autistic toddler who would vigorously flap and smile every time he saw me for a speech and language therapy session. This same child would run out of the room to find me in the building. We had a wonderful bond. They could not believe an autistic child could have a connection of love and friendship with another human. And I don’t blame them for this internal belief, it’s a very common misconception: Autistic? No desire for human interaction. Yes, there are times in which an autistic child or adult wants to be alone, but this does not negate their desire to be included and to have relationships.
4. Autistic individuals can be some of the most empathetic humans in existence. When my own energy is off and I begin a session with one of the autistic children I work with, they know. They know Miss Meg needs someone to just sit by her, to bearhug her from behind or to ask, “You happy, Miss Meg?” I was recently chatting with a mom about an experience she had at a playground with her autistic son who was playing by himself. She was there with a whole group of moms and had just told them her son was autistic. Soon, one of their kids got hurt on the playground and was crying. Her autistic son was the one to come over and check on the other child to make sure he was okay. The other moms were so surprised by this. I’d like to say a myth was busted before their very eyes.
5. You can be autistic and nonspeaking (old term, “nonverbal”) and still communicate. Please read that again. I currently work with several autistic children and am told by their moms that the classrooms they are trying to get their children into will tell them they cannot be in the same classroom as neurotypical peers because they can’t talk to their teachers or classmates. First, it is not necessarily that “they can’t talk,” but it is more likely, “they choose not to talk,” “are not yet speaking” or have too much going on within their brain to isolate and access the synapses needed for verbal speech. There are autistic adults who were nonspeaking as a child and who are now verbally speaking. There are autistic adults who are nonspeaking presently and able to communicate their thoughts, feelings and ideas more fluently and precisely than those who verbally speak by using augmentative and alternative forms of communication (AAC), such as an iPad with a communication app on it, texting or simply pen and paper. And there are moments when autistic individuals become nonspeaking, especially when overwhelmed. It is my hope we will get to a place where we truly understand verbal speech is not a superior form of communication. It is merely another way in which one might communicate.
You need to know it’s okay if you have been one to apologize upon learning about an autism diagnosis. It’s okay if you’ve believed that to be autistic is something to mourn, but now you have no more excuses, got it? Good. Now get out there, be aware of autistic children and adults, be accommodating and curious, and be affirming. Just don’t be apologetic.