One of the things that’s difficult about being an Autistic parent of an Autistic is knowing how to raise my own kid.
See, my husband and I are Autistics of the generation that, in general, few people knew they were Autistic. We were the “do it and shut up” generation which meant that we were told to do things the same as our peers whether or not it “felt weird” or “hurt” or otherwise didn’t go as planned.
Obviously that only works so long, and our parents realized, over time, they had pretty weird kids.
My husband used to read a lot; using his reading, which is something in white culture is considered an advantage, especially when the child reads books above grade level, to hide. I used to do the same, but at recess, I’d swing a lot. A LOT, as in, the whole recess, and use the time on the swings to imagine my fantasy kingdom. Neither strategy makes a kid a lot of friends.
Side note: hiding to read or playing board games by yourself is considered anti-social in Black culture and you will be harassed and told by the adults to do something else if you use this common Autistic child trick as your escape method.
I got invited to birthday parties when we had to invite everyone, and my asthma and severe allergies meant that I was never going to have to stay overnight in a house with a dog, so I could cut my visits short.
Over time, though, they stopped inviting me, when it was an option not to invite the entire class. Parties became subtle, and I just assumed no one had them anymore.
Oh, they had them. They had them, and I wasn’t invited.
Which is how I became the teachers’ friends, and even there I learned there were teachers who would pretend to like me but find me too weird to be bothered with…you know, the ones who were contractually obligated to tolerate me. Then there were the outcast teachers who, themselves, were outcasts in some way or another, and they’d spend a lot of time talking to me.
Nowadays, I suspect, had I not been a little fat girl, this all could have been a red flag for being groomed for being sexually molested. And YES, I know it happens to little fat girls, too, but heck, when you’re fat and weird, there’s apparently a strange kind of person who can find you worth baiting in my experience, though I’ve heard there are others who did not get left alone.
And if I had known, they had known, that I was Disabled, would I have been okay? The statistics are bleak when it comes to Disabled people and sexual assault, particularly those with developmental delays and/or intellectual disabilities. It’s something like “almost everyone.” Seriously. The numbers are that high. In my own town, two, not one, but two Special Education teachers were caught messing with former students who weren’t yet adults within about one calendar year.
But I digress.
My point was, I became that weird, awkward kind of friend with teachers. You’re not really friends because the age difference prevents it, but you’re closer friends to those teachers than to those students your rough chronological age. This is, clearly, potentially a problem because of the potential for molestation as well as the further barrier it puts between you and your peers. As I grew into my own teenhood and started having feelings for the opposite sex, it was never my peers I crushed on, but teachers. I had no frame of reference for kids my own age, and didn’t understand them at all.
And yet I was with them the whole time. We were forced to be, in my generation, except for a few Autistics who were lucky enough to have another schooling path.
Homeschooling for Joy-Preservation
My son, meanwhile, is homeschooled. We’ve removed the part of his life where he’s treated like a social pariah. And yes, this means he does, by choice, hide out at home a lot. If he asks to go somewhere or do something, we do it, but he’s figured out what many of us Autistics don’t figure out until we’re older and realize that we are, in fact, Autistic: we don’t really like going out all that much, unless there’s a specific mission in mind that can’t be accomplished by staying home.
He has never, as my husband and I have, lived his life assuming that “going out” meant fun, even if we didn’t ourselves feel like it was fun at all, but we were told it so much we tried to act accordingly. Let’s just say my son is very into Amazon Prime; two-day (or less, at times) shipping makes him quite happy. He would prefer to wait two days, or even a week, for something to ship than go to the store even for must-have video games. And he rarely wants to go to the zoo anymore since he can watch up-close pictures of giraffes (his favorite animal) online whenever he wants and he doesn’t have to deal with annoying crowds or a very, very long walk to the giraffe spot at the zoo.
But an interesting dynamic has emerged.
He saves a lot of spoons, my husband and I have learned, by expecting us to help him when things are hard. He doesn’t clean up after himself all that much, and while we work on getting him to help (or at least alert us to the messes so we can clean it up), he just seems to expect we’ll take care of it. He’s also got this wicked telepathy thing going on: he seems to assume we can predict what he wants, without him even asking.
Admittedly, we often do predict what he wants (food, video games, etc.) without him asking, but sometimes we miss something and he gets annoyed with us because he expects that we just know he wants something. But really, that’s no different from Christmasses I had when growing up when I could never understand why my parents didn’t know me well enough to predict what I’d want to see under the tree.
Actually, it is. We’re better at predicting what our kid wants than my parents ever were, but we spend so much time together, how could we not know? That’s a benefit of homeschooling that applies to everyone, neurotypical or Neurodiverse, by the way: if you want to really know your child as a unique human, you need to homeschool.
But I, and other Autistic adults, go around in circles about this interesting thing, this idea of being identified as Autistic when you’re in your early 20’s or before. These young Autistics never fully learned to live their lives as pretend-neurotypicals.
We can’t decide if this is good or bad.
My son’s executive function (or lack thereof) makes cleaning his own room very overwhelming. My own isn’t much better, but because I HAD to clean my room from time to time (and it was quite hard, of course), I can help him clean his room. It might take a long time for me to have enough spoons to help, but I can do it. And yesterday, since we bought our son a bigger bed since 1) he’d worn out the other one and 2) we know within 5 years he will be taller than this particular bed, we may as well bite the bullet and get the big bed now, it meant I had to clean his room. I enlisted my parents for help, and it went much faster that way.
My parents are finally learning, by the way, that a lot of what they forced me to do was a lot harder for me than they realized.
But my son did almost nothing to help. It was easier to do it without him.
I grew up being able to clean, though not great at it (when we have the money, I do better with a cleaning person because it’s too hard for me to focus and keep going on a single place) because my parents had no idea what I was Autistic or what that even meant in terms of executive function.
Meanwhile, I grew up masking what I was feeling all the time to the point that I don’t even know who I am, and my son is very happy to be who he is: an Autistic gaming-expert who loves computers and programming.
He knows what he is, and I’m having a mid-life crisis again (this one plays out every few years) between education and writing and not being quite happy with whichever one I focus upon at any given moment. I can’t sort out what I’m doing to please people who are not me from what I am doing to please myself because I silenced that part of me, years ago, that told me who I was.
But I can clean better and have more spoons for social events.
Because I forced myself.
But I am not, objectively, happier.
Meanwhile, I hear my son chatting with himself and singing with joy during the day as he plays. He’s 10. He does not yet know that, by now, that would have been soundly discouraged by his peers and the adults in his life.
He has no idea that society would have, by now, forced him to hide his joy, and forced him to do things “for his own good.”
But what about the real world? Actually, some businesses do expect you to play to your strengths!
There’s an interesting management technique that’s built around not doing what the schools do and remediating weaknesses so that we can all be well-rounded instead of giving students areas to shine where they are strong; instead, the goal is to accept what you’re kind of cruddy at and just pour that much attention into what you’re good at. You’re an asset if you’re doing what you’re good at because you can be more efficient as a company if you do that.
Unschooling works on a similar principle: if you love doing something, you’ll do the math, science, writing, reading, learn the history, whatever it is, necessary to support that thing, so you might not “learn math,” but yet you can solve problems and you know how to do the math when you need it because you know you need it. You work harder because you love whatever it is that you love.
And I can see that playing out here in Autistic families, as we come to terms with what it means to raise the next generation, the generation of Autistics who know they’re Autistic before they become full adults. We try to raise the kids with gentleness, not forcing our kids to do what they say they don’t want to do, so as to not extinguish that voice that tells them, “hey, this hurts.” In this way, our kids are becoming more employable since they’re spending a lot of time with what they’re good at, and thereby that might turn into a happier, more productive career because they’re simply so good at what they do, that they can’t be ignored.
But at the same time, what if a person is good at something else, something he or she has never experienced, and that unknown thing will bring that person great joy if it is uncovered?
In the end, my husband and I are doing the best we can to try to prevent the same stress and trauma done to us, inadvertently, by our parents, from being part of our own son’s life. We hope he will have kids someday, and those children can benefit from knowing Autistics who were pushed (grandpa and grandma) and those who were left alone to be themselves (my son and maybe even his wife), and thereby my son can select from both strategies and figure out, better, how to raise an Autistic.
Because we’re all inventing this now. None of this would have been necessary, of course, had Hans Asperger and Sister Viktorine Zak not been German in World War II, and had their records and their own knowledge of raising Autistics in ways to help, and not hurt, been destroyed by an Allied bomb (oops; Read Neurotribes; Sister Viktorine died shielding her Autistic student-clients). The Baby Boomer, Gen X, and early Gen Y Autistics were all lost, being forced to assimilate, because we all didn’t really know what Autism means.
We’re all just learning it together.
And we’re learning it at a disadvantage. See, Autism got coopted by people who want to see it destroyed, way back in the post-World War II years and after, by a man who hated us and taught us that Autism was something to fear and it was those seeds of fear that germinated into organizations like Autism Speaks (a hate-group, by the way, bent on eradicating Autism, and not understanding it). And since those groups have the power, we have to teach ourselves to parent, to teach, and to live lives as Autistics. This is secret knowledge, and so it’s a much harder fight than it ought to be. The more we get “defectors” over to our side, from the neurotypical camp, who learn from us and grow, the better.
Because this is a thorny problem, and we’ll need to work together if we can all do a better job of raising Autistics to know themselves, and to not hate themselves. Parenting is hard enough; we shouldn’t have to struggle so much to help our kids to be genuinely happy and employable, both. But that is where we are.