The population I’m writing about often goes unspoken of; Autistic people who want to have children in the future. You may think I don’t have enough material to write about this. After all, I’m not Autistic and Caley’s not a mother. I really, really wish you were right.
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.
Image is of my mom, my sister and me splashing in a creek, undeniably happy. Our mother had waded in under the condition that we under no circumstances get her wet. Given that she was dealing with a seven year old and a four year old at the time, though...well, it was just too tempting. In the photo my sister and I are dancing with glee at having partially pulled our mother into the water. Mom? Well, she can't stop laughing.
Our life was certainly rather unorthodox. And yes, sometimes things were hard. But other times, like this one, they were really, really awesome. I'm not saying all parents of autistic children view their lives as happy ones, but ours certainly has been. Stick with me, the way the picture ties into the story is going to make sense in just a bit.
To the Woman Who Pitied Me for Having an Autistic Child,
First of all, I want to start this by thanking you. I’ll admit, every time I take a child who’s on the spectrum to the movie theater, I’m always a little nervous about how my fellow movie-goers will react.
I met a wise mother of an autistic child a couple of years ago who told me that autistic children had just as much of a right to go places in the world as other children did. I admired this mother, and I have sought to practice her words. That said, it’s still not always easy dealing with the judgment of others, and I’ll be honest, I’m always a bit nervous that some theater-goer will complain or take me to task for bringing a child on the spectrum to the theater.
Coming from that perspective, and given that today’s movie was a bit over (or perhaps under?) stimulating, leading to extra loud stimming, attempts to run out of the row and loudly playing pretend with popcorn (which, by the way, is super cool, but I doubt my fellow theater goers appreciated how awesome what they were hearing was), you can see why I might have been nervous that some tsk’ing person might come up to me afterwards and tell me I should have removed him from the theater.
But no such person came. Instead, you approached me after the movie as the child on the spectrum was telling me excitedly about the movie “Home”. You didn’t say much, simply tapped me lightly on the shoulder as you walked and as you passed me you whispered with tears in your voice, “Bless you.” It was literally only a second long interaction, but every bit of your voice was packed with utter sincerity.
I had feared people approaching me with anger, but instead you came to me with compassion. And for that, I very much thank you. I truly wish there were more people like you in the world – people who viewed the world through a paradigm of love, rather than anger.
I’ll be honest – I was a bit speechless at first. There was so much I had to say, but either to keep our conversation hidden from the child in question or because you were busy with (presumably) your own family, by the time I turned around all I got was a glimpse of your face and then you were gone.
Driven by the urge to say something, and at least acknowledge your kind intentions, I called at your back, “Thank you?” Yes, there was a question mark. And I suppose the question mark will have to contain everything that I had to leave unsaid at the time.
As you’ve read by now, I truly did mean the thank you. Your intentions were the best, and the world could always use more blessings. Yet, the question mark arrived from what the words and the tone of your voice and even your facial expression strongly and unmistakably conveyed: pity.
I appreciate your blessings, really I do. And I see where you’re coming from, having only witnessed the encounter on the surface. But allow me to explain what was really going on from my perspective.
In my view, I had just had an awesome time with two great kids I love dearly. I’m sure I looked a bit haggard – but that’s because I was fighting off a burgeoning migraine from the bright movie screen and loud speakers, not because of the kids.
Sure, the child on the spectrum was a bit all over the place, and, yes, I did have to keep him from running out of the aisle. But I loved watching the movie with him and his brother. Hearing his infectious belly laugh (I dare you to listen and not smile), watching him play pretend with pieces of popcorn of all things (which, as I said, is really cool – in case you didn’t know, playing pretend is something a lot of kids on the spectrum struggle with, and I will never tire of watching him do it), bouncing him on my legs and giving him bear hugs for sensory stimulation (which I thoroughly enjoyed doing), hearing him talk to the movie (which is something I actually worked hard to get him to do at home, not realizing that would generalize to the movie theater – hearing him ask those ‘wh-’ questions, though, I still have no regrets), it was all fantastic!
So if your pity was for my migraine – thanks, I really needed it. But if it was for having an autistic child with me at the movies, as I suspect it was…then, no, I actually had a wonderful time. Happiness comes in all shapes and sizes, not to mention neurologies, and I have experienced few moments of happiness stronger than the time I spend with these two amazing children – our movie theater visits included.
Of course, after I thought this through, I realized that your blessings probably went far deeper than that. It was probably not about our movie theater experience at all, but the fact that I appeared to be a mother raising an autistic child.
Here, I’m not in as good a position to speak from. You see, I’m not actually his mother. I was just caring for him and his brother for the day, while his papa rests and his mother is out of town. (The papa for whom the little one wanted to go to the grocery store and buy soup and Gatorade and flowers for to make him feel all better - yes, autistic children are more than capable of loving and caring for their parents, as this one utterly and completely does, and his parents more than return the sentiment.)
Still wanting to address this component of your good intentions, I turned to my own mother, who also raised an autistic child – my sister, Caley. And she backed my own instincts: at least in her view, there’s nothing to pity. Sure, things can be really, ridiculously hard at times. But they can also be really, ridiculously awesome, too.
There seems to be this assumption that life with an autistic child cannot be a happy one - that it's a life worth pitying. But life with an autistic child is, well, life. There are ups and downs, like any other life, though they certainly seem to be a bit exaggerated at both ends. Though there are certainly more societal barriers to overcome, there is so much joy to be found in life that at least in my family’s experience the scale more than balances out.
Your blessings are always appreciated. But your reasoning behind this particular one – well, that might have been based on inaccurate data.
I still greatly appreciate your kind words, and do not wish to discourage you from greeting others with the same compassion that you showed me today. I know what most people’s impressions of what life is like having an autistic child are, and I know they’re pretty uniformly terrible. All I wanted to show you with this letter was, well, that things may not be what you might think.
Thank you again for your compassion.
Creigh, AKA, the woman at the movie theater
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