Several of my earliest memories involve signs of autism: me walking in circles and touching them in my own repetitive ritual, mind occupied with thoughts, content to walk around without outside interference. And though my parents didn’t have a name for it for years, I continued to show signs of autism growing up.
Having me didn’t make them “super parents.” It didn’t turn them more “special” than the other parents of kids at my school. They weren’t “superheroes” or “warriors” or any of the things people post on Pinterest.
This is a post about those posts. I want to talk about why they’re inaccurate, and why their implications can be hurtful in ways I’m sure the people posting them don’t realize.
Let’s outline it:
- Not all autistic kids have good parents
- Autistic kids aren’t always difficult to raise
- Implying that we’re so challenging can be hurtful
- There are different things that make a parent special.
Some of these points might be things you already know, and some might be a surprise.
Not all autistic kids get good parents.
Perhaps I’m being too literal with my literal autistic mind, but the premise here is obviously flawed.
Not all autistic kids get amazing parents. Some have okayish parents. Some have terrible parents. Autistic children can be born to any kind of parent.
Some autistic kids are born to murderers. Some are born to criminals. Some are born to people who hate autism so much that they are willing to kill their own child just to be rid of the “difficulty.”
That’s not special. That’s monstrous. It goes against human evolution, basic human decency, and (if you’re religious) God.
If you claim that having an autistic child makes you special, then you’re saying some awfully nice things about murderers who decide to kill their own children.
Do they decide to commit murder because autistic children are “difficult?” If so, then you’re providing a convenient excuse for these selfish killers. And you’re also being factually incorrect.
We’re not always “difficult”
As a girl, I was the “ideal” child. Obedient, clever, eager to please, and curious, I charmed adults with my good manners and sophisticated mind. Teachers loved me. My report cards said I was a “pleasure to have in class.”
Starting from around age 4 or 5, I have no recollection of ever being punished, because a simple “no” with a quick explanation was enough for me to correct my behavior immediately. Even the implication that I was behaving imperfectly was enough to make me re-evaluate.
That’s a dream child, right?
Well, it turns out I had oceans of bottled-up anxiety and anguish. By my late teen years, this became unsustainable, and I imploded in a mess of tears, rapid-onset asthma, and perfectionism. My burnout was so epic I wasn’t sure I was going to survive it. My parents lost a lot of sleep trying to figure out what was wrong with me and how to help me.
First I was an “easy” child. Then I became a “difficult” teenager.
Either way, I was still me. Either way, I needed my parents to hug me and love me and tell me how special I was to them. In fact, I needed it even more when I was crying myself to sleep at night because my world was falling apart around me.
My parents did say a few hurtful things to me when I was suffering. I don’t think they knew any better. My dad later apologized.
But they never said hurtful things about me to other people. They never said that I was troublesome or that they wished I didn’t exist. They never wished for a different, non-autistic version of me that they could love more easily.
It was hard on them. But it was especially hard on me. And while they asked other people for help, they never talked negatively about me or implied that they were heroes for tolerating me while I was in pain.
It hurts when our loved ones imply that putting up with us is a challenge.
What makes an “autism parent” more special than a regular parent?
Think about it.
Is it because sometimes autistic people have crying meltdowns? Is it because some of us act out when we don’t know how to handle our frustration? Is it because our body language mystifies neurotypicals?
Does that mean we’re harder to love?
Because we get this message in many ways. When they complain about our behavior in front of our faces. When they tell us how difficult we are. When they say they must be pretty great if they are willing to put up with someone as challenging, as burdensome, as unlovable, as us.
So often we paint the picture of the hero special needs mom like simply loving her child is some great challenge, but it isn’t.Kaylene George, mother
You might be thinking “That’s not what I mean. I don’t think that way about my child.”
And there’s a good chance you don’t. But whatever’s in your words, this is the message that your kid might be hearing and internalizing. And other people’s kids might see this message and start thinking the same thing as themselves.
They might open up their social media, see these posts, and think “Autistic people must just be hard to love. Other people’s parents think it too. Maybe the bullies are correct and I really am unlovable.”
I hope you don’t want your kid to think that. I hope you don’t want other people’s kids to think that.
You can use your voice. You can say that loving a disabled person doesn’t make you a hero. (I adore my sister with Down syndrome, and I’m no hero. She’s actually really easy to love.) You can affirm that your child, and autistic people in general, are worth loving and having as part of your life.
And if you were to do that… it would strike me as pretty special.
So what makes a parent special?
You want to be proud of yourself. Of course you do. Parenting is a tough job, and there are extra challenges that you may face as a parent of an autistic kid.
Well, I know what a special parent looks like. I know because I have the best dad in the entire universe. (Sorry, everyone who owns a “world’s best dad” mug—you got ripped off.)
As the person with the Best Dad, I am an excellent authority on special parents. Here are some things that make you special:
- Taking time to listen to your kids and validate their feelings shows that you’re a special parent.
- Fighting for your kid’s education, health care, and rights makes you a special parent.
- Throwing yourself into research so that you can learn how to help your child makes you a special parent.
- Advocating for your child and other disabled people so the world will respect and accept them makes you a special parent.
- Teaching your kid to be confident and assertive in a world that puts them down makes you a special parent.
- Showing your child unconditional love every day makes you a special parent.
You aren’t a good parent because of the child you have. You’re a good parent because of the decisions you make every day. It’s not what you have, but what you do.
So let’s circle back to the title of this post. It doesn’t take a special parent to raise an autistic kid, or any kid in general. But when a parent commits to being kind and loving and respectful of their child every day, that parent chooses to be special.
You can’t control what type of child you get. But you can control how you treat that child, and good parenting decisions are what count.
Maybe you’d like to make a special decision today.