To Protect or Respect?

This is an edited version of a post originally published on Respectfully Connected

To protect or respect your children shouldn’t really be an either-or option, but in the context of parenting autistic children, those two concepts appear to conflict at times.

I see this conflict when organisations, that focus on supporting autistic children, disregard the respect that children deserve in their attempts to protect them. There is an element of presuming incompetence in autistic children that appears to be common in these organisations. You can see this when you read their websites: they tend to focus on how much individual children are unable to accomplish rather than focusing on how much children can actually accomplish.

I see the same thing in parents of autistic children – they want to protect their children, but their protection does not respect their children’s autonomy.

As a parent, I think that desire to protect our children is natural. We want to ensure that our children are given the best possible opportunities, and we want to reduce the possibilities of them getting hurt or experiencing the disappointment of failure.

But I wonder whether that drive to protect our children can sometimes cost them respect. If we respect that our children have autonomy and the right to self-determination, we also have to accept that there are going to be times when they fail or get hurt. When that happens, we can be there to support them, but if we don’t allow them those opportunities, how will they develop the skills to deal with future failures?

To me it comes back to presuming competence. When organisations and parents focus too heavily on protecting autistic children, there is a tendency to adopt the attitude that autistic children aren’t competent enough to deal with life’s challenges.

Our children are different. Their experiences of the world are very different to the experiences of the majority of their peers. I am not suggesting that we should simply disregard our drive to protect our children, but I do think that it’s important to ensure that that protection is balanced with respect.

Recently, my son asked me a question linked to these thoughts:

“Do people not like autistic children because they are scared of us?”

As his parent, I wanted to rush in, protect his feelings, and reassure him by saying “no, it’s not that,” but that would not have been an honest answer. If in my need to protect him, I had answered dishonestly, what would that tell him about himself?

I think it would have devalued his experience because he sees me advocating for autistic rights. He hears me speaking about the things that need to change, and from that, he has been able to draw that remarkably insightful conclusion that people are scared of autism because that’s what makes us different.

It also would have devalued his own experiences because he has experienced that dislike first-hand. He’s lived with it in our community and in his former school where people have said nasty things about us, and where people have said nasty things about him and to him.

So, instead of protecting him, I respected his insight. I explained that there are many people who don’t like people who are different. I explained that it’s mostly because they don’t understand difference, and when people don’t understand something, that can scare them. We also chatted about how being different shouldn’t make us feel bad because our difference isn’t a bad thing.

I reminded him that we have wonderful friends. We have friends – both autistic and non-autistic – who accept us for who we are. We spoke a bit more about how we could change people’s minds about being scared of our differences, and we both agreed that we can change people’s minds by continuing to be proudly autistic.

By showing people that we love our lives, we can show them that we are competent enough to live meaningful lives even with the challenges that we face. We’re competent enough to deal with those challenges so we shouldn’t have to be completely protected from them.