The Trap of the Stereotyped Autism Parent

You’re no doubt familiar with the saying “if you’ve met one autistic person, then you’ve met one autistic person.” It should be obvious that the same truth stands for a parent of an autistic child. There have been damaging and dangerous stereotypes of autism parents in the past, the prime example being Bettelheim’s one of the refrigerator mother. Bettleheim was wrong – both about autism and about autism parents. The same of another stereotype; that all autism parents simply don’t discipline their children, and that’s where autistic behavioural problems come from. It’s another erroneous theory, that similarly misunderstands the very nature of autism.

Yet in the effort to fight back against these unhelpfully misinformed views, all too often we just set up yet another stereotype group to which we’re meant to belong, and then get trapped by it. Allow me to explain.

A simple example of trying to save ourselves from negative perceptions, whilst creating a further stereotype, is someone who is a hero to some and a villain to others: Jenny McCarthy. One of her claims about autism parents, forces us into two camps: Those mother warriors who fight to cure autism, and those who revel in the victim role. Of course, she and everyone who agrees with her get to be the heroes. This is an obvious example of creating new stereotypes about us that are meant to help and empower, but only further distort the truth. But there are far more subtle and common stereotypes that I have in mind, which create a trap for us.

Those are the ones that proudly announce that the autism parent is a tireless (yet oddly exhausted) under-supported individual, who spends every waking moment sacrificing themselves to their child’s needs and advancing their child’s development. A truth for some, yes. (A truth for me for a good many years, yes.) A truth for all..? No, of course not. Similarly the idea that all autism parents are amazingly strong people who can and do face up to every challenge thrown their way; that they have some extraordinary strength (sometimes expressed in this way: “God knew you were strong enough for this challenge,” or / and “I couldn’t have done what you do everyday!”) These and other stereotypes of who we are and what we are capable of, are traps.

Traps, because if someone who doesn’t fit the mold is found, it makes people question if the stereotype was ever correct, and they find themselves seeking a new all-explaining stereotype based on the new example of autism parent they have encountered: “Oh I met a mother of an autistic child, who wasn’t trying at all, she wasn’t using any discipline and was happy to keep her child in nappies, makes you wonder if that’s what’s going on with the other autism families too..”

More-over, the stereotypes are traps because it can be used as a way to critique us for ever stepping outside of the created role. Just yesterday I was reading a comment from a parent attacking other parents because they were spending “too much time” enjoying themselves online; they took this as evidence that the parent either didn’t have a genuinely autistic child, or that they didn’t care about their child. This sort of attack is based on the stereotype that genuine autism parents are those tireless sacrificing creatures, and that if we step out of that role we are either frauds or failures.

Another way in which the seemingly good stereotype of the autism parent, creates immense problems, is when we – as a group – get attacked for trying too hard to “change” our children; that we must all be endlessly working at squashing our autistic children’s stims and at trying to make them normal, because that is the stereotypical image of the hard-working autistic parent. (I’ve recently encountered certain people attacking autism parents as an entire group, for just that.) So that the parents are yet again – just like in Bettelheim’s day – cast as a group from which autistic children must be liberated. (Only this time the liberation is so the children can be their genuine autistic selves, rather than so the children can be “returned to their normal human state.”)

Here’s the truth of the matter: What we have in common is having an autistic child. That’s it. Yes that means some of our experiences are going to be the same, that we’ll be hyper-aware of certain challenges and attitudes within society; but even then it doesn’t tell you what we’re going to think or do about those challenges and attitudes.

Some of us are lousy at discipline, some of us are strict authoritarians. Some are cold and distant, some are warm and eternally loving. To push it to its limits, yes some autism parents kill their child, but you know what, the rest of us don’t and would never even contemplate such a thing. All these variations are true of normal parents too. We don’t lose our personalities and ideals – and morph to some stereotype – just by virtue of having an autistic child. (I’ve had more than one person assume that I would change my political beliefs when I became a parent, and predicted I would change them again when my child was diagnosed as autistic. Didn’t happen either time.) Claiming that we morph in this way, just creates distorting stereotypes, that no matter how well-intentioned, always ends up making us targets in new ways.

The child with autism has, by definition, particular challenges. But the precise nature and intensity of those challenges vary so greatly, that on those grounds alone, it should be obvious there are no immediate truths about how their parents will react and be shaped by the process of parenting. (It also doesn’t necessarily help to point out that autism parents frequently carry a few autistic traits themselves, since again this is not always the case. In the situations where it is the case, it should not be – but often is – used to explain away certain reactions or perceptions, even when there’s a substantive argument being presented: Stereotypes are often used to ignore or belittle points of views and to avoid addressing actual arguments.)

There are lots of interesting observations we can make about the majority of autism parents (about our education levels or whatever you like); such information can be used to tailor services or to even aid research into autism itself. But when those observations morph into stereotypes expressly used to either praise or attack us as an entire group – which I see happening far too often – it marginalises those who don’t “belong,” it sets up the traps I attempted to explain above, and it of course distorts the reality that if you’ve met one autism parent, you’ve met one autism parent.

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10 Responses to The Trap of the Stereotyped Autism Parent

  1. Sherry says:

    Very well said! Thank you. From, Grandma.

  2. nzpam says:

    I totally agree with Grandma. As a parent of 3 amazing daughters who have given me 4 unbelievably wonder-full (mis-spelled on purpose- they are full of wonder) moko, this is the exact opinion i have. I see my 2 daughters of 3 autistic children being put on the defensive far too often by the stereotypes.
    I raised them in a very aware manner, aware of what they needed to learn, aware of my own biases and aware of making sure i enjoyed as much of their childhood as possible. They are doing the same with their children. The autistic kids are being raised the same as the more typical one, with awareness and love. Also, my step-daughter allows me to share her 3 kids as well, one with spina bifida in a wheelchair and 2 more typical kids and they are being raised this way, too.
    Each of my girls have their own personalities and beliefs and we give each child what we think is needed, as well as huge helpings of love and laughter.
    As you say, each parent is their own person, with their own beliefs, most just doing the best they can. We need lots of people stating just what you have said because it’s spot on. Thank you. Sharing on twitter and facebook now 🙂

    • Thank you nzpam, and what a lovely family and attitude you have; your children and their children are clearly lucky to have your positive and supportive influence in their lives. Very inspiring. 🙂

  3. nostromo says:

    Great post A&O.

    Stealing this from the Single Dad Disabled daughter blog:

    “The Lord only puts on your plate what you can handle” – so if I were a weaker person would my son be normal?

  4. Sunshine says:

    YES! It seems so unreal that I never hear others say what you have said here. I either hear autism parents regarded as saints to be atop pedestals or jerks incapable of disciplining our children (or incapable of loving them for who they are, take your pick).

    For the most part, I feel like a pretty typical mother. No one even acted like that was possibility when my son was first diagnosed! I have a lot of people who have known me for so long, and yet they have a really distorted perception about my life because of assumptions they make about my child’s autistm. You’re right- our personalities, strengths, beliefs, etc don’t just change because of an autism diagnosis. And why would they? Thanks for writing this!

  5. Kaz Brooks says:

    I find it’s polarized between 1, ‘ your life must suck…how can you live!’ vs ‘2. ‘o yeah- my kid threw a tantrum the other day- your kid is no different to my kid- we go through the same things!’ I think this was a timely topic to blog about for sure.

  6. nikki says:

    This is brilliantly written
    I’d like to share it with all my friends on Facebook but i know that very few would read it. Everyone should read this but not everyone is interested 😦
    Most people are only interested when it comes to stereotyping us like you said…
    But it’s just a bad case of ignorance they have and something we should all remind ourselves on bad days
    Unfortunately ignorance is a majority…

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