May 1, 2023

In a recent discussion about how parents can help autistic children reach certain goals, my reaction was to question the goals themselves.

Here’s what I had to say about stopping bad behavior, appearing less weird to avoid mockery, independence, and preparing to face a confusing world.

“Stopping bad behavior.”

Some behavior is apraxia, or inability to control muscle movements. But I believe most behavior is communication. For behavior that’s communicating distress, stopping the behavior won’t eliminate the distress, but identifying and mitigating the distress might eliminate the behavior. Mona Delahooke has some great books about this.

“Make them appear less weird so people don’t make fun of them.”

The kind of people who make fun of others are not the kind of people I want to be friends with. If I change who I am for their sake, what have I gained? A false friendship with a mean person who doesn’t know (or like) the real me… and an ongoing pressure to keep up the mask. I do still fall into this trap (it’s natural!) but I’m much happier when I ignore the naysayers and build connections with friends who are as weird as me.

“Make them independent.”

Autonomy, or the right to make (and communicate) our own decisions, is a great goal! But that’s different from independence. All humans need some form of support, some more than others, and even support that isn’t “needed” may be beneficial to prevent burnout. We live in a society that values independence for its own sake, but some of us would rather ease the burden by living with others and/or receiving help with tasks that will never get easier.

“Prepare our child for this confusing world.”

This is a journey, not a destination. I frequently feel confused and unprepared, even now. But each time that happens, I discuss it with family or friends. They help me understand what I was missing, e.g. what a neurotypical person might have been feeling when they reacted negatively to me, and then I’m better prepared for similar situations in the future. It’s less about what I “should” do, and more about understanding what might happen if I don’t. And that knowledge never stops growing!

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.