Friday, August 28, 2009

My Parents

A lot of people accuse autistic rights activists of being against parents. Often it's assumed that we had bad parenting and are projecting our experiences onto others, or something like that. Well, I can't speak for other autistics, but I know that's not the case with me. I had good parents. In fact, I had excellent parents.
Throughout my school years, my teachers kept saying there was something wrong with me. My first school kept saying I had ADHD and needed Ritalin. In a later school, the principal figured I had Asperger Syndrome. So why wasn't I diagnosed until I was 15 and sought out a diagnosis myself? Because my parents didn't think there was anything wrong with me.
Not that they didn't know I was different. They weren't in denial, they knew I wasn't like most kids. But as far as they were concerned, that was a good thing, or maybe indifferent. How could anyone think that it was a problem for a child to be as smart, creative and original as I was?
A big part of it was that they instinctively knew how to create an environment that suited me. So when the teachers said 'she's defiant, she's this, she's that' my parents honestly answered 'she's not like that at home, what are you doing wrong?' And they were right - I acted the way I did at school because my teachers didn't know how to handle me properly. What really shocked me, when I got involved in autistic rights, was realizing that it wasn't my teachers' methods that were unusual, but my parents. You see, the mistakes my teachers made that set off my meltdowns and made it nearly impossible for them to calm me down - most parents of autistic kids make the same mistakes.
I suffered a lot in school, but when I went home, I went home to an environment that suited my needs. If my teachers had been the ones raising me, it would have been so much worse. I'm not sure if I'd even be alive now, considering that despite my parents' support, I was thinking about suicide when I was 10 years old.
But I didn't kill myself. I never even considered it as a serious solution to my problems. That's because I always knew things would get better someday. And do you know why? Because of my parents.
Firstly, my parents always told me that college was way better than school, and that my kind of mind would be an asset in college. So I could put a time limit on how long I'd have to suffer, because I truly believed that once I graduated grade 12, I could be happy. (Fortunately, I got to be happy before then, because of homeschooling.) But that wasn't the most important reason I had hope.
More importantly, I knew that not everyone viewed my differences the way the school did. The people whose opinions mattered the most to me respected me, and that gave me hope that others would as well. And I never thought the problem was with me, because I was fine at home with my parents. I figured the problem was with my school. And you can leave school behind, but you bring yourself wherever you go.
So the reason I'm in activism isn't because I had bad parents and think that all parents of autistics are like that. No, I'm in activism because I had wonderful parents, and I know how unusual they were. Most parents of autistics want to be great parents to their children, but they're nowhere near as close to ideal as my parents. And I'd like to show them how to give their children what I got growing up, because I know just how essential that kind of parenting is to an autistic kid.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rule of Perception

In a lot of contexts, what's actually going on is considered to be more important than any particular individual's perception. However, in terms of the psychological impact on the individual, perception matters much more than reality.
So, for example, let's say we have two children. Child A's parents don't love him/her, and show this clearly. Child B's parents love him/her very much, but don't show this clearly. Both children are going to feel unloved and show the same set of psychological problems (all other things being equal) because they both perceive their families the same way. So, the fact that Child B's parents love him/her doesn't really matter that much to to the outcome*, what matters is how well they show their love.
For another example - imagine if a person is paranoid. He/she will be under the same sort of stress as someone who is really being plotted against, even though it's all in his/her head.
So if you want to understand why someone is acting a certain way, and what's going on in that person's head, knowing what situation they're in won't necessarily help. You need to know what situation they think they're in.

* It does matter in one way - parents who love their child but aren't showing it very well are more likely to improve over time. If a psychologist tells both sets of parents that their children feel unloved, Child B's parents are much more likely to see this as a problem, and it's a whole lot easier to choose to start showing your feelings better than it is to choose to start feeling something new.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Paranoid Parents

A lot of people lately have been saying that our society has been diagnosing too many minor developmental quirks as disabilities, that we're overpathologizing children. For the most part, I've been disagreeing vocally - after all, I'm a person who would not have been diagnosed as autistic in the past, but who has been helped by being diagnosed autistic. In large part because I've found my people, and the reason I feel so different from most people. And then there's the meltdowns, the sensory overload and the organizational issues, which have been helped by trying to accomodate my autism.
But in working as a volunteer expert on, I've seen another side of it. This question is a good example - a mother of a sociable 2 year old who uses a few single words, and she thinks he might be autistic. Autistic! He's not even language delayed, and his language is the only area she's really concerned about. I've gotten several questions like that - parents worried that their 15 month olds aren't talking yet or their 2 year old don't talk very much, and they immediately jump to worrying about autism. I even had someone ask me if her 2 month old was autistic!
I started out thinking that if parents think their children are different, they probably are. Now, I understand exactly why so many doctors dismiss parents' concerns - because they really are overreacting! What is going on here? Clearly, something is wrong about parents scrutinizing tiny children so intensely for signs of something wrong!
This doesn't happen with gifted children, by the way. I get plenty of parents asking me if their children are gifted, because I'm an expert in giftedness as well as autism. Most of these parents are more towards the extreme of being uncertain about obviously gifted kids, such as a kid who was reciting the alphabet at 18 months. It's only when they think it's something bad that they overinterpret minor variations - when it's something good, they need to be told about the most obvious examples. I bet there are far more gifted kids whose parents don't think they're gifted than the other way around. The exact opposite is true for autism.