Many years ago – when I was a university student with a different surname, and hadn’t yet heard the word “autism” – I bought myself a kitten for company. A particular incident that happened soon after I got her, has stuck with me very strongly ever since, and illustrates something that bothers me when it comes to watching adult-and-child interactions now that I have children of my own.
A friend was visiting me at my flat, and of course I introduced him to my new kitten. My friend took a rather intense and perverse joy out of teasing and fooling my kitten (in unkind ways), which culminated in him announcing in a very condescending and dismissive manner: “stupid cat.” My immediate thought was how poorly it reflected on him that he felt it necessary to illustrate himself to be smarter than, and able to outwit, a tiny kitten. That he felt announcing the kitten’s “stupidity” to me was something amusing and worth sharing. It did change how I felt about and saw him; I know it may seem like a small incident to some, but I loved that kitten until the day she died, and anyone who took joy out of proving and declaring a new kitten to be inferior to an adult human, was inferior themself in my eyes.
Now, over a decade later, I see the same sort of behaviour and perverseness present when other adults set out to – and succeed – in fooling and misleading my children. This is particularly true for my autistic child, who’s literalness and taking people as honest and trustworthy (much more so that his neurotypical peers do), leaves him particularly open to being mislead. These adults who set out to misteach him, are kind people who think they are amusing him (and amusing themselves in the process), but all I see is a fully grown adult who is trusted and knows they are trusted, abusing that trust to teach my children lies.
The sort of lies and misteachings I’m talking about range from the seasonal lies of Santa and Easter Bunnies and Tooth Fairies, to lies about how the world works and what consequences come of behaviours (eg, your fingers will drop off or your eyes will go blind). The sort of lies where the other adult winks at me as the parent, as they supposedly share this joy in their ability to lie so convincingly to someone who is looking to them for answers.
My autistic son is always asking questions, endless questions, and he listens to and takes in the answers he receives. Each answer he gets typically spins off into another volley of questions. He takes answers seriously, incorporates the knowledge it provides, and will reference those answers in the future as he tries to make sense of this world. So each false answer, each intentional lie or misteaching, just necessitates more lies in answer to the flow-on questions. The alternative is to admit one lied to him originally, which confuses him and requires him to unincorporate the information that had been given to him, which he often finds hard to do. I spend far too much time un-teaching the easy pointless lies of other adults, who should have just taken the time and respectful approach of telling my son the truth when he seeks them out for knowledge.
It’s not that my son doesn’t recognise and enjoy fantasy – he surely does. But he needs to be told when something isn’t real, that doesn’t come naturally to him in the way that most children can identify if an adult is intentionally pulling their leg. Unlike other children too, my son doesn’t just hear a fancy story and then go back to whatever he was doing; he tends to obsess and desperately try to make sense of what he’s told. It’s a good trait for learning – he is an absolute knowledge sponge at times – but it is unhelpful when he is around adults who think lies are easier and more amusing than the truth.
The fact is though that I feel the same about my younger – non-autistic – child. I don’t want adults lying to him for them own amusement either. I want him to grow up knowing that Mum and Dad – at the very least – are trustworthy sources of knowledge. That we would not, do not, lie to him for the sake of our own amusement. That he can safely learn from us and always come to us for guidance. He too will grow up around fairy tales of dragons and magic, but he will know they are not real, and will be none the poorer for that knowledge; I am a firm believer in the notion that the real world – that truth – holds far more magic and wonders than any fairy tale ever could. As Douglas Adams so beautifully put it:
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
I understand why some adults lie to their own children – that is their own parenting choice – but I do not enjoy or accept it when adults lie to my children. I do not laugh along when adults misteach children, any more than I laugh when a grown adult human outwits a tiny kitten in a way that confuses and upsets the poor creature. I think there is more joy in trust – and in reality – than in all the Santas, mermaids and fairies in the world.