You’ve probably encountered a well-meaning fellow parent who tries to offer a compliment or advice about your child, but leaves you feeling uncomfortable deciding whether to ignore it or politely educate them on autism or disability advocacy. Below are some cringe-worthy situations I’ve been in and suspect other autism parent advocates may also be familiar with.
Not all parents will be uncomfortable with these statements, but some will. Understanding the reasons why some people take issue with them will hopefully help parents and caregivers understand how the neurodiversity movement impacts daily conversations and basic beliefs about human development.
This is when another parent compares your child to theirs. They may highlight similarities in an effort to suggest that whatever struggle or challenge you are trying to help your child with is common among all children or not a big concern. This sort of comparison can offend parents who are trying to identify autistic uniqueness in an effort to locate specific supports that match their children’s needs. Also, when other parents fail to acknowledge the efforts people on the spectrum put forth to acquire some of the same skills their neurotypical peers do, it puts pressure on adherence to a neurotypical standard and is dismissive to individual needs.
However, this isn’t always an offensive situation. Highlighting similarities among all children is important to treating people on the spectrum with the human dignity they deserve. Chris Bonnello reminds parents that advice and attempts to minimize challenges is most often done with the best of intentions. It’s important to try and educate and embrace autism advocates when possible, rather than single them out.
Have you ever had someone offer what they think is a compliment, but is truly an ableist comment? Examples include, “He’s doing great! He doesn’t look that autistic!” or “She must be high-functioning, thank God!” These statements assume that autism is bad, and attempts to hide it, stifle it, or eliminate it are good. While there are certainly disabling symptoms associated with autism that most would prefer to avoid (or at least choose to live in a more accommodating environment), not all autistic traits are negative. Many are positive or neutral. Pressuring people on the spectrum to hide or eliminate autistic traits can have damaging effects on self-worth. See our download Top Language Mistakes for more examples of the impact of language choices regarding autism.
The Latest Fad
It seems like parents are constantly inundated with news of the latest ideas for autism cures. Medicines, specialized diets, therapies, and environmental recommendations for people on the spectrum flood the media. When parents of neurotypical children offer advice based on the latest thing they saw on TV or read online, it often isn’t helpful.
Autism parents have likely already heard of this trend and have either accepted or rejected it accordingly. Also, if the approach to such a subject is aimed at recommending ideas for cures or eliminating autism, a tone of dissatisfaction/disappointment/sympathy/pity won’t likely be well received.
The Sympathy Statement
Many people are unaware of their own ableism. One way ableism manifests itself is in sympathy statements such as, “I’m sorry you have to deal with that,” or “I’m sorry you have an autistic child. It’s just not fair.” Many autistic self-advocates have warned that autism is inextricably tied to their identity and removing it will eliminate their essence of who they are (See Jim Sinclair’s Don’t Mourn for Us).
Yet other self-advocates wish to separate their autism from personhood (See my interview with Paul Isaacs). In general, most people want to hear positive comments and offers for support and accommodation rather than statements of sympathy or pity.