Raising a child with autism has made me a better person.
How many times have you seen a statement like that, and what is your reaction when you do? I’ve never felt comfortable with the statement, I’m not even a fan of the oft-repeated notion that having children would make someone a better person. The fact is many people remain just as rotten (if not more rotten) after having kids as before having kids. But there’s an extra kick in these statements when we talk about children with disabilities making us better: The subtext that their suffering and hardships is in some sense “valuable,” because it leads to another person’s personal growth and betterment. To put it another way, it objectives the disabled child into holding worth in relation to what they can make happen to other non-disabled people; implying (at its extremes) that the disabled child’s true worth is not within them or intrinsic.
But here’s the rub: My son’s autism did make be a better person.
Wait, I hear you say (and I have had people say this to me when I tried to explain myself); how could I possibly know that his autism is what lead to my personal growth? Could it not be, perhaps, the fact that he was my first child and therefore the growth is that which comes of having children at all (ie, disabled or otherwise)? Or perhaps my growth is something that was going to happen anyway for me; that I am just one of those people who were already on the road towards whatever enlightenment I found? Or maybe it was just what happens when a person is under hardship and has to either grow or get towed under in order to cope, and I happened to grow rather than drown, but the autism itself was incidental as just one of many possible catalyst hardships?
I’m going to say no, those are not correct; it was his autism, it is his autism. No, I don’t know what person I would have turned into without having had an autistic child, but my confidence in saying that it was his autism that made the difference, is because my growth is in my attitudes towards everything that autism touches: My respect for and understanding of intelligence; my attitudes towards disability and intellectual disability; my patience, coping, and problem-solving skills that I’ve had to develop when faced with daily interaction with a mind and perspective so new and challenging. My views on special education, and what is of most value in a human, and how I could and should interact with everyone from family to friends to strangers: All this and more, changed in me because of the daily lessons and experiences that come from raising a (once severely) autistic child.
Those are not “mere” lessons of parenthood or incidental personal growth (not least of all because I find myself fighting to get other parents and seemingly compassionate people, to reconsider their own (often unconsciously or incidentally formed) attitudes and views in these specific areas).
I don’t think I could satisfying enumerate the myriad of ways in which my son and his autism – especially because of his autism – have improved me as an individual. I am stronger, more compassionate, more aware, more accepting, and all those other good words. I like who I am now much more than who I was before, I feel like a more fully realised human being. I know I still have a long way to go, but it feels like he was what started the growth.
I’m going to be extra annoying and say: That’s my truth. That’s what happened to me, and why, as I lived it.
But I don’t go around telling it to everyone I meet, and I’m still going to cringe when I hear it made as some sweeping statement from anyone else. Because it’s equally a fact that autism will not make everyone “better.” And I am very aware of and concerned about that subtext I referenced earlier about objectifying autistic people, into this tidy little inspirational package that exists to make the rest of us better.
I must say that I am also very conscious of the problems and distortions that arise from this romanticising of what is in fact a very serious condition; there is real harm that can come from pretending autism is something harmless and sweet, most especially for families and individuals living with the most severe forms of autism: It is frustrating, upsetting and unhelpful to be told you should just embrace and love autism, when your daily life is violence and exhaustion and fighting to access basic rights and services. I have become increasingly aware of the daily hardships for adults with even very mild forms of autism too, so the romanticising idea that autism is instrumental to wonderful things, can overcast very real issues and concerns at both ends of the spectrum.
Any good things that might come from me telling people his autism “made me better,” are far out-weighed by these other concerns. People will falsely generalise my truth, into something it isn’t for others, and into a distortion of the condition itself, and an undercutting of the internal and intrinsic value of an individual with autism.
So that is why his autism made me a better person, and why I should never say that it has.