A good friend who is a non-autistic parent of autistic kids asked autistic people to write out some thoughts for parents in relation to Autistic Pride Day on 18 June. I thought this was a good thing to do. My responses to her questions have been adapted into this post. As an autistic advocate of over 13 years’ experience I have seen a lot of changes in the autism world. When I started out in 2005 a lot of parents were very heavily focussed on the negatives around autism and would express – often in front of their kids – about what a burden it was to have an autistic child. Thankfully this has become a much rarer occurrence but there are still some misgivings which can occur between autistic advocates and non-autistic parents. I think connecting with parents – and particularly non-autistic ones – is really important. The biggest influence on a child’s life more often than not is their parent/s. Autistic pride is a really important topic for all families with one or more autistic members and probably more broadly in society, so I thought I would write this post. I hope you find it helpful.
Autistic pride is premised on the notion that autistic people are valuable, worthy and an important part of human society as they are as autistic people. This does not mean they will not experience difficulties with some areas of life or that they don’t need support but it does mean recognising and fostering their strengths, talents and interests and supporting them to like and value themselves.
Despite there being a lot more awareness and understanding of autism in recent years, we are still discriminated against. This is demonstrated in a number of settings from the still appallingly high rates of bullying of autistic kids in schools to the very low employment participation rates and low educational attainment statistics.
Autistic pride is a great way to counter this. If a person is genuinely proud of who they are and sees their autism in a positive light, as part of their character and personality, it helps them to navigate the world better. This is relevant for all autistic people – those who use verbal speech and those that don’t, those with all cognitive abilities and accomplishments and those with any additional ‘labels’ as well as autism. It is a quality that parents can play a huge part in fostering and supporting.
Pride feeds into a bunch of very useful attributes like self-esteem, self-confidence, resilience and independence. Even better, it allows us to value ourselves in the face of a world that often does not respect or value us and to educate others and advocate for other autistic people too. Someone who is filled with a sense of pride and self-respect is more likely to navigate life well, be fulfilled in life and achieve their potential. Without that sense of pride and given all the barriers stacked against us, it can be very hard to be who we want and need to be. Pride is great at helping to level the playing field for autistic people. It is one of those qualities which is pretty much always a good thing. The example that a person who is proud of who they are sets for others is fantastic and it also demonstrates a model of viewing autism through the lens of pride. This will almost certainty impact on neurotypical people and change their understanding of autism for the better.
What positive, proactive things can parents and other adults in an autistic young person’s life do to help foster that sense of pride?
There are a bunch of messages and actions non-autistic parents, and other adults can do to promote and foster a sense of pride in autistic kids and young people. These include:
- Understanding that autism is a different wiring of the brain and not due to a deficient or ‘broken’ brain.
- Understanding that autistic communication is as valuable and effective as non-autistic communication – just put a roomful of autistic people together and take notice of how they don’t have the kind of miscommunications as they might when communicating with non-autistic people. Viewing communication this way and having a sense of needing to learn to ‘speak autistic’ is a key part of understanding autistic young people and fostering a sense of pride.
- Reading and viewing work by other autistic people – there are advocates who are children as well as adults and they often have some very useful strategies and understanding too.
- Make sure your child has access to autistic people as possible friends and also adult role models and mentors where appropriate. Adult autistics can be great translators and interpreters for kids and kids interacting with autistic adult role models is a very powerful way to build their self esteem and sense of pride.
- Don’t punish a child for ‘autistic’ activities like stimming. And don’t fixate on or insist on eye contact, or on things perceived as ‘poor social skills’ that are just a bit different (e.g. parallel play at later ages than that at which after neurotypical kids might stop doing it).
- Encourage kids. Take an interest in their interests. Challenge and stretch them within their capacity so they will be proud of themselves for overcoming challenges.
Thoughts on some ‘therapies’ to avoid
- Parents of autistic kids, especially newly-diagnosed kids, want answers and want to help their child in whatever way they can. This is of course completely understandable but it is important to be aware there are lots of charlatans peddling pseudoscience ‘cures’ and ‘treatment’. Often these view autism as an ‘epidemic’ or something that a person can recover from. If any individual or company talks about ‘cures’ and ‘recovery’ it is a good idea to avoid these at all cost. They won’t help your child and they will probably do more harm than good.
- At the same time, beware of ‘evidence based’ therapies that are centred around compliance. This includes things like Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA).
- It is very rare indeed for a parent to intentionally do something harmful to their child. Unfortunately some ‘therapies’ which are marketed as being helpful and enabling your child to get along better in the non-autistic world but are in fact focussed on conditioning your child to act ‘less autistic’ (including ABA). This alone can have a huge negative impact on how your child views themselves.
- This sort of ‘therapy’ does not support autistic children to develop into happy, fulfilled autistic adults. Instead it works to forcibly make a child seem less autistic. We don’t need to make autistic children try to look less autistic! We need to support them to be themselves and if anyone has an issue with their stimming – or whatever – well that person needs to be educated. There are a lot of documented cases of trauma in autistic adults who went through ABA as kids. I am certain their parents did not intentionally subject them to this knowing it would cause trauma. It would most likely have been promoted to those parents as a therapy to make their child somehow ‘better.’ Sadly this kind of thing rewards kids for doing often very stressful and unpleasant things like eye contact. It can also remove some of the child’s effective coping mechanisms. For example stimming is used by many autistic kids as a means to self regulate and address stress. You can imagine the impact that removing that one strategy might have on a child.
- These kinds of ‘therapies’ do not help kids to develop pride and value in themselves. In fact they could be seen as representing the enemy or antithesis of autistic pride.
I speak with parents every day and have given countless presentations to parent groups but I am n to a parent myself and my perspective in this piece is that of an autistic adult who has only relatively recently developed a sense of pride in who I am as an autistic person. If I had that sense of self-worth and pride as a kid going through all the horrors I did, I know it would have made a huge difference. Pride is a gift you can support your child to attain.
Thank you 🙂