The not so subtle hinting started, I think, when Caley was in middle school and discovered how adorable babies were. She’d coo at them and play with them and openly admire them. She even declared that she wanted her own someday*. That’s where the ‘nudges’ began. First it was warnings. “You know, babies are a lot of work.” Then it came out into the open.
In the years to follow, pretty much any time she expressed liking a baby, Caley was reminded repeatedly that because she was Autistic she shouldn’t have children. Why? Well, she wasn’t competent enough, they said. And besides, Autistic people are well known to have fill-in-the-blank problem(s) which would make it so she couldn’t handle having a child, they said.
Suddenly, Caley stopped liking babies. In fact, she started acting like she wanted nothing to do with them and saying that she hated them. What had happened, my mother and I wondered, to cause such a dramatic turnabout? Now, all these many years later, she told me. Since she was told she couldn’t have babies, Caley says she decided to try to convince herself that she didn’t like them, to reduce the pain. This period lasted for years – all the way until this past year, in fact.
What changed? Well, in this past year, Caley has come into her own and has finally told us her dream, which despite the work of those many years of denial, never died. She wants to have children. Not now, of course. She wants to graduate, get married, and become financially stable first. But she definitely wants them. And now that the family understands autism a bit better, most members support her.
Society, however, still does not. And so it was that Caley called me in tears four months ago. She’d stumbled upon a post online where the person was arguing that Autistic people would be terrible parents. The full post tried to rationalize why autistic people shouldn’t be parents, through “logic.”
I think the first sentence of the post – “I am not saying you would be an unacceptable mother and compared to having no mother or having a violent mother a mother who simply does not care about their kids I think a loving, autistic mother is a good alternative.” – kind of says everything. Maybe if she hadn’t been told growing up that being Autistic would make her an incompetent mother, this wouldn’t have hurt so much. After all, this is the Internet and people make highly offensive claims about subjects they know nothing about all the time.
But to someone who grew up exposed to the narrative Caley did, this hit home. So instead of brushing the author off as a troll or typing out an angry reply, she turned their words inward. “Is it true? Would I really be a bad mother?” she asked me, voice trembling. “Because if I would then I need to know so I don’t have children.”
We were spiraling downward, and Caley was right back on the path she’d trodden for so many years, the one where she was going to try to convince herself, again, that she didn’t actually want or even like babies. Far better to believe a lie than to feel the pain of reality.
“No, babe,” I told her. “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” And then I proceeded to rip the poster’s “argument” apart and show it for the farce it was. “Oh, good,” she said. “But why was he so mean?” The answer to that, of course, is ableism.
The commenter wasn't trying to be mean, of course. He thought that was a perfectly rational and acceptable argument, and presented it in a very logical manner, citing the damning “facts” that autistic parents can’t tell the difference between tones so they won’t know why a baby is crying, or when their teenage children tell them their day at school was “Fine” autistic parents won’t be able to read their tone and tell how it was. (If this disqualified one from parenthood, there would be a great many fewer parents in the world…)
The people who told Caley she shouldn’t have babies didn’t realize it, either. They were just following common sense. Everyone knows autistic people shouldn’t have children (it will never fail to surprise me how many of the things “everyone knows” are patently false). Caley is Autistic, and therefore, following their logic, she should not have children. To remind her of this fact was difficult for them to do, but it was their duty to do so and it was all for the best. Or so they thought.
What these people don’t realize, however, is that there are plenty of autistic mothers and fathers all over the world. In fact, that seems to be one of the greatest routes through which autistic adults are diagnosed – their children are found to be autistic, and the parents realize, in turn, that they are, too. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, great-grandparents, autistic people have filled all these roles, and done quite a good job of it, too.
When ableism really sneaks up on you is when you don’t even realize it’s there. It oils its way in under the guise of ‘common knowledge’ and its claims are never questioned. But, once you realize its presence, its foolishness becomes apparent and you can fight back against it. And that's exactly what most of the people who once warned Caley she shouldn't have children have done, now that the ableism involved has been made clear to them. But they had to have it pointed out to them first.
That is why I write this post. To show it to you. To warn those of you who are parents of autistic children to make sure you don’t accidentally reflect this attitude or allow others to reflect this attitude onto your children. (Because it starts young.) To show those of you broader members of society that this outlook really is a problem, so that you, too, can combat it where you see it.
For my part, all I can say is this. If and when Caley decides to have a child, or even multiple children, I will be right behind her supporting her. And those children will be some of the luckiest children in the world to have Caley as their mother.
*Though I focused this post on the Autistic experience, about the same time that Caley was warned about her love for babies, to highlight the plight of siblings, I would like to add that I was warned, too. As a sibling of an Autistic person, I am more likely to have an Autistic child, I was cautioned. I should strongly weigh this when I was deciding whether or not to have a child, and I needed to warn my future husband of this possibility and “be prepared for the worst”. Though my competence was never questioned, there was definite hinting that I may wish to consider not having children.
For years afterwards, I worried about this, and though I never went quite so far as Caley did, I thought that if I ever got married, I would have to marry someone who was okay with adopting, because having children who shared my genetic material was too risky. If someone tells you the same thing enough times, particularly when you’re as young as I was, you’ll believe them.
Now that I’m older, funnily enough, I still think that if I have children (that is a big if, mind you) I like the idea of adopting. The difference, however, is that now I would purposefully want to adopt an autistic child. It's ironic that the very thing I was warned to fear is now the very thing I would seek out.