Love & Autism is for all of our children, yours and mine, autistic or not.
Why? Because my kids walk the world with yours.
My children, five and seven, don’t need to learn the R word on the playground. They certainly don’t need to giggle at “ the short bus” jokes. They do not need to feel that people who look, act, talk, live differently than we do, are “bad” or “weird.” When I started Love & Autism in 2014, I really wasn’t thinking about my own children and their understanding around the rhetoric of autism. Today, this has become another important reason to keep working towards the values of Love & Autism.
Years back, when I was newer to mothering, I naively assumed that I could grow my children’s moral compass. I hadn’t considered how many messages my children would learn from their peers, their communities, and the media. Messages sent when I’m not even present; like when they are at school. Last June, I had a wake up call.
Two days before the end of the year, I sat with my volunteer sticker affixed to my shift in Gracie’s classroom, cutting out paper bear faces for an end of the year production. I was marveling in my artful cutting skills when I heard a shrill voice condemn a child, “I will take you outside.” It sounded threatening. My eyes fell towards the culprit; an adult woman employed as an instructional aide hovered over a little autistic boy. She was opening and closing a datebook with the velcro picture images affixed to it’s front; slamming its contents and gesturing to the pictures. Her previous comment was not a stand alone, one off, comment where an adult loses patience, and quickly regains her composure. We’ve all been there. It was the start of a litany of harsh and demeaning comments including, “Don’t you yell at me” when the only voice raised was her own and “You are being mean” with various iterations of ‘mean’ used repeatedly. I stopped my volunteer crafting and studied the environment. Teacher continued on teaching, students continued on drawing. This was so common place, I was the only one in jaw-dropped fury.
I approached my daughter and checked in with her. I wanted to know if she had internalized the statements of this adult about her classmate. I asked her calmly to talk to me about various students; her views brief and positive. In the same casual tone I asked Grace about this particular student, the one who was in the midst of being lambasted by an adult. She said, “He’s good at reading, but he can be kinda mean sometimes.” My heart sunk. Someone, without my permission was teaching my daughter how to other...how to hate. She’d used the exact same language that was used about this child to describe him. I was devastated and pissed off.
This was the first time that I realized that other adults where a large part of teaching and modeling morality to my children. And I did not like what I was seeing.
The story of where I took my anger and what I did about this degradation of a child is not the point of this story (I took action, don’t worry).
The point is, we all are responsible for growing a generation of children that treat each other with humanity, respect, equality, kindness, and assumption that each of us is ‘good enough.’
Our treatment of each other includes how we talk about differences, how we integrate feelings related to differences between and amongst us, and how we label and define ourselves and others. In truth, how we define and treat others is inter-related to how we treat ourselves.
Love & Autism is one part of a larger global discussion on how we engage around differences; in this case neuro-differences. It’s not just hyperbole, words matter. Our language around autism shapes and informs how the world interacts with autistic individuals. How we think, write, and converse about autism is fundamentally tied to how autistic individuals are treated in this world including what interventions and therapies they receive at home and school.
Thinking back to that day in June, it was of no surprise to me that this little kindergartener was treated with such disdain. When we pathologies autism; using overtly negative descriptions; categorizing a set of people by a few symptoms, and defining an identity in deficits, we create room in our world for interactions like the one I and twenty six kindergarteners witnessed. As for my children and yours, they deserve better than that.
Autistic, allistic, neurodivergent, or neurotypical…all of our children require us to adopt practices where each human being is able to define themselves not by a diagnostic checklist but by their authentic self. Let’s create a world together.
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