Sticks And Stones And Words That Hurt

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

Special needs parents come with all kinds of super-powers, one of them being the ability to grow a thick skin. This is a necessary part of survival: without it, we would not be able to withstand the stares from strangers during public meltdowns, the judgmental comments that are designed to make us feel like bad parents, and the mothers who steer their children away from our kids in the park, as if autism were contagious.

These things never really stop hurting. They never fail to make our hearts ache for our beautiful children who through no fault of their own, are targets of ostracism and discrimination. As we grow into our roles as special needs parents, though, we learn coping skills. We come up with ways to shield our children from the hurt, and to let the strangers know that our kids have a place in this world, differences and all.

We learn how to accept that the blatant looks and rude comments are not a reflection on us as parents. They are a reflection of the ignorance and prejudice in other people.


No matter where we are in our special needs parenting journey, nothing can prepare us for the first time someone maliciously refers to our children as “retarded”.

Although this word was originally used in a medical sense, it is now generally regarded as a derogatory term, especially when the intent is clearly to hurt either the child or the parents. As conventional wisdom states, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my son George’s autism diagnosis. I guess it is a cause for celebration: not only have we survived for this long, we have seen great strides along the way.

It is also the first – and hopefully only – day on which someone referred to George as our “retarded son”. It happened in the early hours of the morning during a telephone argument between my husband and someone else. There is no doubt that the words were spoken with malicious intent.

George was asleep, so he was spared the pain of hearing himself referred to in this way. The hurt behind the words had to go somewhere, though, and it slammed into me, almost leaving me breathless, and then settled over my shoulders like a heavy cloak.

Several hours later, I am left with a knot in the pit of my stomach that won’t go away, and unshed tears that I am trying with all my might to contain.

As I try to prepare my son for life in the big wide world, I worry about what the big wide world is going to throw at him. Will it be a place of opportunity for him, or will it be a minefield of insults and discrimination?

Do I try to shield him from the hurt, or do I let some of it get through to him so he can learn how to protect himself?

How do I ensure that my son will be OK, that he will be happy and feel safe, in the days when I am no longer here?


  1. MomToAKid says:

    Those are such difficult questions. The reality of being a parent is that we won’t be able to shield our precious beautiful children from the hurts that the world, and cruel people, will inflict upon them.
    We can prepare them for it by teaching them compassion for others, teaching them that the insulting and hurtful words directed towards them do not come from a place of love and acceptance, and that ultimately they need to focus their positive attentions on those who will use only words of love and acceptance.
    Your children have a very strong and capable mother. I know that your strength will guide both of your both towards a place that ensures their own strength and their own ability to handle all of the cruelty that they may be subjected to.

    The word “retarded” should be scrubbed from our vocabulary. There are many other words that should also be scrubbed from our inner dictionaries. But, I am also a firm believer that words only have power when we give them power over us. This is where our inner strength comes into play.

    Rambling. Avoiding work. Sorry.

    • Kirsten says:

      Thank you for the great comment. It is good to be reminded that words are only as powerful as we allow them to be. That is a good lesson for me to teach my children.

      Anytime you want to avoid work, you are more than welcome to come and ramble here!

  2. An admirer says:

    A tear almost rolled down my face. I had to look the other way and stop for a moment, then come back to reading again. I have always said that autism makes better parents and better individuals. People who are more likely to understand and forgive others for the stupid things they have said or done. You K. is one of the best examples I can find. Thank you for being such an inspiration to us all.


    • Kirsten says:

      Thank you for these kind words. I do believe that special needs parenting has enriched me as a human being. There is so much that can be learned from my son, and I hope that I can use some of that for his benefit as he grows older.

  3. Kirsten – I came across this post recently, and while it doesn’t relate directly to the hurtful words y’all have and will encounter, it’s good to find a positive tool which may be helpful to your son and others:

    “Finding Common Ground Across Special Needs: Ritual, Autism, and My Faith” by Dilshad D. Ali on Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions’ website

    Hoping we can help all our kids find joy and peace in their lives,
    **Katy M
    Recommending YA books beyond the bestsellers at
    Follow me on Twitter @BooksYALove

    • Kirsten says:

      Thank you so much. It’s always good to learn about resources that are out there.

  4. I think MomToAKid said it all. My brother in law, who has autism, is in his 50’s now. He endured terrible bullying in school – back then things were so different but, in a way, still the same. There is no easy answer.

    • Kirsten says:

      It’s sad, really. I hear so many stories of people with autism who endure bullying. I worry about that for George, although he is currently in a school that is very proactive about dealing with problems like that. I hope your brother-in-law is now enjoying a happy and fulfilled life.

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