I want to start off by clarifying that I am in no way defending the societal or parental expectations I outline in this post. I find them to be abhorrent, in fact, but it occurred to me that there’s not much written by Autistic parents about parenting theory, social expectations, and child development (aside from the lovely folks over at Respectfully Connected) so I’m going to jot down a few thoughts that I’ve had recently.
Society’s expectations dictate that certain behaviors and ways of relating are “good” vs “bad.” Speaking as a parent, I know that there is an immense amount of pressure on all parents that our children behave “appropriately” at any given time. Often this is at the expense of the child’s well-being, even when the child is as neurotypical as is possible.
There’s an appalling lack of understanding in society at large about allistic (non-Autistic) child development, let alone Autistic child development. Unrealistic expectations for children are sadly the norm, not the exception. There’s so often a lack of patience for even the “usual” childhood developmental stages.
There’s also an utterly inexplicable expectation that children should be more in control of their actions and emotions than the parent for whom it is considered socially acceptable to yell at, berate, and even sometimes hit their offspring.
Society’s unrealistic expectations plus the allistic misunderstanding of Autistic experiences and the allistic difficulty in comprehending how differently we experience the world seem to me to be at least part of the root of the “cure” rhetoric, the “doom and gloom” perspectives of autism, and the idea that we should be forced to appear “normal.”
No, we don’t naturally react or communicate in the ways that allistics expect us to. We may never “function independently” in an allistic society either, but those really shouldn’t be the goals. I can think of many more relevant and beneficial goals for my own children and most of these are goals that I’ve had for them ever since long before I knew that some were Autistic.
Before I even knew what autism was, I knew that, above all, I wanted my children to be compassionate and happy. I want my children to know that they have my unconditional love and support, whether or not they ever achieve the sort of “independence” defined by a world that denigrates and even condemns their way of experiencing and reacting to it.
To be completely fair, I understand that it can be difficult for allistic parents to listen to what we former Autistic children have to say about our childhoods and parental goals without getting defensive. We don’t dance around with our words as much as they do (the word “dance” being neither negative nor positive, per se, just expected) and when we try to, we often still trip over our feet despite the effort.
It’s often easier to accurately hear and understand the perspective of those who are closest to one’s own neurology so it makes sense that allistic parents would be more likely to believe allistic “experts” before they believe us, but someone who has never been autistic cannot speak with authority or accuracy about what it’s like to be us. No, we aren’t other people’s children, but we used to be Autistic children and thus have a much better idea of how Autistic children experience the world than allistic “experts” do.
This neurologically-based communication gap, I believe, is further compounded by society’s expectations of children that directly seem to feed into parental expectations of children.
Often I have seen ordinarily gentle parents respond more harshly in public with their children than at home because of the worry about, “What will others think if I don’t respond firmly/harshly enough?” I’ve felt that pressure mildly myself. As a friend recently put it so well, I have a great deal of IDGAF (I don’t give a f-) surrounding societal expectations, so I can only imagine how strong the pressure might be for someone who truly cared about and could somewhat accurately guess at what others might be thinking.
We, as Autistic adults also often violate those societal expectations, which is readily apparent to me in the online reactions of allistic parents to Autistic activists and our way of expressing ourselves, as well as their reactions to us in real life encounters.
But if allistic parents are going to have any hope of better understanding and accepting their Autistic children, they have to get past those expectations and learn to listen to Autistic people – especially to their own children. All people communicate, even if not in the expected ways. Learning how to listen to one’s own child above societal expectations may be a difficult thing for most people to do, but it is possible.
More even than being possible, it can and must be done for the benefit of the Autistic child and the Autistic adult that child will eventually grow into being.