I love when people challenge me and question my statements as it helps to broaden my horizons and build my understanding of life. An Autism parent advocate colleague posted this comment on an article I wrote about tips for parents from an Autistic persecutive. The point he was questioning was me saying that your Autistic children can achieve such goals was working, driving or raising children. Here is the comment:
As much as I respect my adult son’s abilities, I doubt that he will ever drive or raise children effectively. There is no place for him to study. He enjoys his own life and is pretty clear about his choices. I have met other autistic people like him.
This got me thinking about my message around achievement and empowerment. I am always Little Miss Positive and tell audiences that Autistic people can potentially do anything others do. I talk about achievement, resilience and independence. My position is based in my own history of great achievement out of terrible adversity and disadvantage. My default position tends to be ‘if I can do these things so can others.’
This raises the question of perspective and that rather fraught concept of ‘achievement’ or ‘success’. I am what you might call conventionally successful – I have a well-paid and respected profession, I have written a number of books, I own my own home, those sorts of things. For me, I live a fulfilled life, but my friend who wrote the comment has a son who is also fulfilled and happy without any of those conventional measures of success.
This makes me question how I present my message. I think this is one of the reasons parents in my audiences like what I have to say. Imagine you are a parent. You have a child and they are your entire world. As they grow older they come to the attention of educators and then health professionals and you suddenly join the ranks of Autism parents. The health workers and other parents have low (or no) expectations for your child. You feel really devastated and assume your child with never be able to do all the stuff you value (playing football, raising kids, begin a real estate agent, or whatever). Based on the professionals’ words you think your child will be miserable and unfulfilled and disabled their entire life. You feel like you have to adduct your vision for your child. You go to a conference for parents of kids on the Autism spectrum and see this passionate Autistic woman called Jeanette take the stage and tell you about all the amazing things she has done. You think ‘If that woman who was extremely disadvantaged and disabled can be a public servant etc then my child can too.’
I suspect I may need to tweak the message or at least how I deliver it. My friend with the comment was right of course. Some Autistic children will not grow into home-owning, book-writing public servants. (Actually not too many non-Autistci kids will do these things either.) Some will not fall in love or have kids, they won’t drive and they won’t live independently. I need to reconsider how I present ‘successful’ or ‘fulfilled’. Fulfilled does not have specific criteria which apply to everyone. For one person fulfilled means playing Minecraft for another it means founding Facebook. Neither of these things is better or worse than the other. For parents, you and your child have not ‘failed’ if they don’t ever get a job or drive. I think the challenge here is not to impose low expectations but also not to impose expectations which don’t actually fit with the Auitstic person. If you judged my friend’s son’s happiness and achievement by his ability to work full-time or drive a car you would have it wrong. By all means empower and encourage and have the view that your child can do all the things you might value. However, just because potentially they can doesn’t always mean they will. It is often about gaining an understanding and respect for the wishes and ambitions of your child rather than those you may place on them. This is also true for parents of non-Autistic kids.
Of course this all takes us to that much-quoted adage that if you have met one Autistic person you have met one Autistic person. So to the lovely parents in my audiences, I am not saying your child has to do all the things I did to be fulfilled. What I am saying (I think) is to love and support your child whatever path they take and not to impose your own expectations and aspirations on them but instead to empower them to follow their own dreams.