Why his autism made me a better person, and why I should never say that it has.

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.

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22 Responses to Why his autism made me a better person, and why I should never say that it has.

  1. Hilary says:

    My son’s autism hasn’t made me a better person, although I’m probably more assertive now, but it has given me a much more interesting life than I ever imagined.

    • Quite possibly you didn’t have as much personal growth needed as I did – you were possibly a better person than I at the outset! 🙂

      Either way, it’s a personal experience and journey, and I fully respect that others have lived with autism differently than I. We all come from our own backgrounds and bring our own personalities and experiences into parenthood and into living with an autistic child. Thanks for sharing how it impacted (and didn’t impact) on you personally.

      • Hilary says:

        Thanks for those positive assumptions, but I meant I am just as impatient and intolerant as ever. However, I think I have learnt to be more flexible, live more in the here and now -day to day, and be prepared for anything. I am hopeless at planning anything far into the future as who knows what will happen tomorrow? But on the other hand, I like to appreciate the children we have now as they are now, and not be fixated on some future ‘potential’ that might not be realised, or might be different from anticipated.

  2. nordling2013 says:

    This is what my friend, the autistic Iris Johansson says on the subject in her book A different childhood:
    I am beginning to understand if you take care of dysfunctional human beings, you get to have a tough life and at the same time a development of your personality and character that you couldn’t get any other way. This is what we handicapped persons give back to others so that from the beginning we have already discharged our debt, therefore there is nothing we need to thank somebody for, we do not owe a debt of gratitude to anyone. There is much we can be thankful for in that others focus on us and thereby undertake their own development, but we have paid back by not giving up and by forcing others out of their comfort zone and learning new things about themselves, deep down. It can take long time to discover that the only reason to take care of broken humans is to actualize oneself.

    • Gosh, that’s quite a confronting view nordling2013. I think it comes a tad too close to objectification of the disabled for my likes, but an interesting view nonetheless. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Niksmom says:

    I don’t know that I would ever declare that raising my disabled child (autism is in the mix) has made me a “better” person. I would, however, absolutely assert that it has made me a more thoughtful, accepting and determined person than I might have been without him. That I have had to tap into deeper reserves of strength of spirit and determination than I even knew I had. But I wouldn’t say that makes me a “better” person; merely a changed one.

    • Fair comment Niksmom, I suppose it depends on where you draw the line in the language, and what one means by “better person.” I think if those sorts of betterments you list were long-term improvements, that would count as bettering the person, but I can see how you might disagree with that too. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Quintorpian says:

    That’s an interesting topic. I guess it all boils down to the idea that when you put a statement about something so richly complex as autism with such varied personal ans social/cultural perspectives then its going to be open for interpretation from all those perspectives. And not always kind ones. I personally think that if you feel you have grown for the better from parenting an autistic child it can be a gift to others if they are struggling in their own families. It might help other parents see the gift instead of wallowing in self pity if that is where they find themselves. There will always be cynics who see hidden subtexts and judge you harshly accordingly, but the world should not be controlled by the need to appear correctly to those people. You have managed this skilfully by expressing your own experience of becoming a better person while acknowledging the difficulty of announcing this in the postmodern world we live in.

    However i disagree with the idea that these experiences should not be shared. I think they should. To be challenged by another: a disabled child, an aging cantankerous parent, a bigoted colleague etc and meet that challenge and be bettered by that meeting is being human. The wider social criticisms about riding on the backs of others’ misfortunes can happen too, but hopefully mindful of the love and caring that underpins these personal stories.

    • Very well said Quintorpian, and that is the way I normally lean with these matters. Perhaps you’re right that I should reconsider my view on whether it’s worthy and important to share this particular part of my autism experience. Thank you for making me reconsider that aspect.

  5. Sharon says:

    Interesting as always. I have no doubt your son bought an awareness to your life that has led to a richness you may not have had otherwise. AS you know I don’t feel Im a better person for having kids on the spectrum, but I do feel my perspective has broadened in some ways, and Im thankful for that. And I say that publicly and happily 🙂

  6. kermommy says:

    I believe that all people can give us something, and we, in turn can give them something, to help them grow as human beings. You give your child the tools to live a satisfying life, they do the same for you. I think it is a shame that we are not allowed to admit to our own benefits, as if they negate the contributions and growth of those we benefit from. What is the point of human interaction if no-one changes? I hope I am becoming a better human being and learning from the terrible and wonderful experiences of parenting my children. I hope they are becoming better human beings for having been parented by me.

  7. I’m of the opinion that not all stories about disability and personal growth through service are true inspiration porn; there’s lots of ways to marginalize the disabled, but sharing tender feelings about getting to know them, through love and service? Hmm…I think not.
    If it doesn’t:
    1) Make then a minor character in their own story
    2) Doesn’t speak FOR them,
    3) Doesn’t reek of “I’m as fucking awesome as Mother Theresa” or
    4) “What’s your excuse, you able-bodied bitches?”
    then I’d have to say, it’s probably not having a first-world argument over, and is worth giving the writer the benefit of the doubt.

    • Well thought-out bappy. I suppose I think what I’m talking about just rubs a little too close to (1), in that it makes my son look like he might be secondary to my growth, even though he very much is not and I would never think or intend to say such a thing. I suppose I worry about how I might be misconstrued, it’s happened before and will happen again of course. I’m glad that no one who read my piece appears to have misunderstood me yet though, I’ll take that as something positive.

  8. Sunshine says:

    We are on the same wavelength. Agreed and agreed. Could get into the hows and the whys. But I probably shouldn’t. 😉 Love that I got this little man in my life, anyhow.

  9. Wife of Jack says:

    If we are talking about personal growth, I’m just glad my son came along in my 30’s not my 20’s. The greater resilience, confidence and pragmatism that comes with age, can only be a good thing for our family.

    I think you have to have a stable platform to start with to grow at all from special needs parenting. It’s just lurching from one crisis to the next without that solid underpinning. Growth is not possible without the space to examine and reflect.

  10. Rose says:

    My son made me a better person. Any child makes you a better person. You learn giving, loving unconditionally, sacrifice, laughter, and mostly forgiveness, mostly of yourself…unless you are a real a**.

    I recently really screwed up, ended up putting roundup on my husbands roses, our fruit trees, all our garden thinking it was insecticide. I wanted to die…

    My son said, “You didn’t mean to do it. Don’t feel bad. It could have been worse, we could have been subsistence farmers…” which made me laugh ~a little~ but I thought, wow…those times when I forgave him for being human came back to me. I remember times when his face just had that look where it all depended on how I treated him after he screwed up. And I remember seeing the relief in his eyes when he was forgiven. I know I wouldn’t have been like that before children. I was selfish.

    What was the question?

    Really, I just wanted to tell that story, ha!

    That’s what I don’t like about ABA. It doesn’t develop the conscience. We as parents have a choice to be better when it comes to our children. But when you see it come back to you it feels like a miracle…

  11. Pingback: Better because of autism | lovenlearning

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