From little things, big things grow

[CN: ABA mention]

I often get involved in debates with parents of autistic children. These debates revolve around the idea that if they shove their kids into intensive behavioural modification therapies, they believe that they’re doing the best thing for their child. They’re not.

Many autistic adults have objected to behavioural modification therapies. I’ve already written about this, but I need to write some more. I need to write some more because this topic is like banging my head against the wall. It’s frustrating, it’s headache-inducing and it’s predictable.

Inevitably, during these debates, parents will say something along the lines of ‘that’s all well and good for you, but you’re not like my child’. It’s such a common response that if I type NLMC to friends of mine, they immediately understand the acronym (for those who don’t, it stands for ‘not like my child’). It’s so common that a whole blog and Facebook page was started to counteract it.

Here’s the thing, though. They’re right, sort of. All those parents are completely and absolutely right, sort of. I am not like their child. Do you know why? I’m not like their child because I am an adult! Just like a neurotypical adult is not like a neurotypical child, I am not exactly like an autistic child. The skills that I have as an autistic adult are not the same as the skills that I had as an autistic child.

But, here’s another thing: I was an autistic child. I may not have known it at the time, but I was. My ‘temper tantrums’ were all too frequent. My inability to cope with a world that was not designed for people like me impacted on me greatly, and continues to do so. My expressions of frustration were all too often invalidated by parents and teachers who could not, would not, understand that I simply couldn’t ‘just go with the flow’ because the flow was so completely uncomfortable for me. So, I may not be like your child now, but I was like your child.

There’s another thing that always irritates me about these debates, and that is that parents seem happy to trample on their child’s right to privacy in order to prove just how much I am not like their child. They will reveal their child’s darkest moments and deepest struggles on the internet in order to do so. This denial of their child’s basic human right to privacy and dignity seems to be completely acceptable. It’s not acceptable to deny those rights just because you’re the parent of that child. Parents do not own their children. A parent has the responsibility to protect, love, and guide their children into adulthood. Denying those rights while you attempt to prove some sort of point, or garner sympathy, is irresponsible.

After trampling on their child’s privacy, these parents will then insist that their child will never do [insert whatever skill they assume that I have] so I simply cannot understand what they’re going through. Of course, they ignore the fact that I am also a parent of an autistic child, and it just seems completely foreign to them for a parent to be willing to give their child space and time to develop. In most cases, their children are young – under the age of 10 or so. That’s a little early to be writing off a child’s entire future, isn’t it?

From little things, big things grow… This autistic adult has grown from a small autistic child. I have more skills now, as an adult, than I did as a child, but those skills are still uneven when compared to the average neurotypical adult. My speaking ability does not match my typing ability – even on my best days. On my worst days, I can lose the ability to speak. I still experience frustration over things that many people consider to be insignificant little things. I still misread social cues. I still shut down. I still meltdown. So, while I may not be like your child now, I am a lot closer to being like your child than any neurotypical adult is.

The truth is that we actually don’t know a whole lot about autistic developmental pathways. We don’t know a whole lot about autistic skills acquisition. We don’t know because we keep comparing autistic children to neurotypical children in order to highlight ‘deficits’ and ‘delays’ rather than trying to establish whether differences in development and skills acquisition are simply just different. Not better, not worse; just different.

If we keep trying to forcefully shove autistic children into neurotypical boxes, we’re limiting them. We’re not allowing them the space to develop their skills in a way that is natural for them. If we keep trying to insist that autistic children behave ‘normally’ (by using neurotypical standards of normal), we’re denying them an essential right to be themselves.