Autism Is No Excuse


A few weeks ago, there was a story in our local community newspaper about a boy with autism who had been asked to leave a restaurant, along with his mother. When I first read the headline – Autistic boy booted from restaurant – I felt outrage on behalf of the mother and child. But when I read the story, I found my sympathies shifting to the restaurant manager.

What happened was that a mother and her son with autism were eating at a fast food restaurant, and the child started melting down over something. He was shrieking and banging on the table, and at one point he grabbed a fistful of fries and threw them. The mother made little effort to soothe the child, saying, “He has autism. There’s nothing I can do.” When the manager politely asked her to leave, she complied, but in the aftermath she made a big deal of the fact that her son had been discriminated against because of his autism. The manager made a big deal of the fact that the child had been acting in a manner that was disruptive to other diners.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time will know that I’ve dealt with my share of autism meltdowns. I’ve been that mother whose child kicks and screams in public places. I’ve been on the receiving end of the stares and comments, and on two occasions, I have had to offer to pay grocery stores for goods that have been damaged as a result of my son’s outbursts.

But my son’s autism does not entitle him to create a situation that disrupts the activities or enjoyment of other people. When he acts out in public, it’s for one of two reasons: either he is having an autism meltdown, or he’s acting like typical bratty kid. If he’s having an autism meltdown, it’s up to me to try and soothe him, either by removing him from the situation or by finding a way to divert his attention to something else. If he’s acting like a typical bratty kid, it’s up to me to discipline him and make it clear to him that bad behaviour is not acceptable.

Either way, it’s never OK for me to use my child’s disability as an excuse to let him behave in a way that impacts other people. He may have autism, but he still has to be held to a certain standard of behaviour, just like the rest of us. That restaurant manager was not reacting to the fact that the boy had autism. He was reacting to the child’s disruptive actions and the mother’s failure to do anything.

There was a story in the news a few years back about a child with autism who was removed from a plane under similar circumstances. He was lying in the aisle having a meltdown while the flight attendants and other passengers were trying to step over and around him. All attempts to get him settled in his seat were failing, and eventually the boy and his father were taken off the plane. My Facebook feed erupted in outrage as people accused the airline of discriminating against the boy with autism.

But really, what was the airline supposed to do? Delay the flight until the meltdown was over, which could have taken hours? Take off with a boy kicking and screaming in the aisle? Allow the behaviour to continue without regard for the safety of the flight attendants or passengers? My view was very unpopular, but I believe that the airline took the only action they really could. They would have done what they did whether the child had autism or not. In fact, from what I could glean from the story, the airline actually delayed their decision to remove the child because they had been made aware of his autism.

This subject reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago, when I was still in South Africa. I was talking to a co-worker about a high-profile murder case in which the accused had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Evidence against this individual had been overwhelming, in terms of forensics and witness accounts. My co-worker, a black man, told me that this man had been sent to prison just because he was black. I disagreed.

“No,” I said. “He’s been sent to prison because he killed four people.”

My co-worker did not dispute the fact that the man was guilty, but he was stuck on this idea that the outcome of the trial was symptomatic of racial discrimination. But what was the alternative? Should the judge have let the criminal walk free just to prove that he – the judge – wasn’t a racist?

Should flight attendants, restaurant managers and other people endure a child screaming and throwing things in public just to prove that they don’t discriminate against people with autism?

Discrimination in any way, shape or form is wrong. I do not condone racism, gender discrimination, homophobia or any kind of bias against people with disabilities. I am big on human rights and equality. I believe that accommodations should be made for members of minorities and people with disabilities where possible – like wheelchair accessible buildings, government services in multiple languages and alternative screening processes for job applicants with autism. But I also believe that everyone has a responsibility to be considerate to those around them.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Dmitry Kalinin. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


Autism In The Workplace: Opportunity Vs. Discrimination


As I was scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed this morning, I came across a picture of a bunch of people, with a caption saying, “Share if you believe in autism acceptance”. If you click on the link that comes with the picture, you are taken to an online pledge entitled “Hire Employees On The Autism Spectrum”. The blurb points out that individuals with autism often have exceptional talents and ways of thinking, and can therefore be a valuable addition to any workplace. Then there is an online form where you fill in your name in order to sign the petition.

I believe that the intentions behind this are fabulous. Too many times, I see people being excluded from activities and opportunities simply because they have autism. It starts early in life, with kids not being invited to birthday parties or included in games (whether the child chooses to participate is another story – my point here is that it would be nice for them to at least be asked). As the child grows older, I am sure that exclusion extends to teenage activities, educational opportunities, and eventually, the workplace. I am all for taking steps to ensure that people with autism are given equal opportunities, and accommodations where needed.


Do we want a situation where employers are actively seeking out and hiring people with autism, simply because they have autism?

My son George is a whiz with numbers, although I suspect that this has less to do with autism than with simple genetics. My husband and I are both good with numbers, and so is my younger son James. We are a family of math geeks. And like me, George is good with computers. His autism definitely gives him a unique way of thinking and fantastic attention to detail in certain tasks. I see him growing up to be some kind of computer nerd – a programmer, maybe, or someone who actually puts computers together.

I would love to see some employer recognise his skills, see the value that he could add, and hire him. But I wouldn’t want his autism to be a factor in that decision. If he’s the best qualified candidate for the position, he should get the job. If someone else is better qualified to do the job, that person should be hired. Maybe George will need some accommodations during the interview and selection process. Maybe the hiring manager will have to use some creative thinking or some kind of quantifiable measure to choose the right candidate. Maybe, if George is the one selected, some workplace accommodations will need to be set up for him.

But I strongly believe that employment selections should be based on qualifications and ability to do the job, and not on whether or not the person has autism. If George’s co-workers one day say things like, “Wow, that autistic dude is awesome at what he does”, I would be completely fine with that. If, on the other hand, they say, “Yeah, George is good at his job, but he was only hired because of his autism”, that would make me sad.

I believe the hiring process should be fair, but it has to be fair to everyone. Hiring someone because of what disability he or she might have is unfair to the individual, and it’s unfair to other people.

There is a place for the online pledge that I described earlier, but I think it should be differently worded. Instead of urging employers to “hire people with autism”, the call should be for employers to give people with autism an equal chance.

What do you think? Is a drive to employ people with autism a good thing, or is it a form of discrimination that could be unfair to everyone?

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Kanemojo. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.



Easy Breezy Autism Covergirl?


Being an autism parent comes with many challenges. One of them is society’s tendency to sensationalise people with autism who have any kind of talent. Temple Grandin, for instance, is frequently held up as a shining example of what autistic individuals might be able to accomplish. So, bizarrely, is Rain Man, who isn’t even real.

One of the latest autism whiz kids is a young woman by the name of Carly Fleischmann. She is non-verbal, and at a young age doctors predicted that her cognitive development would be limited. She had a breakthrough when she typed a message on a computer, and since then the world of communication has opened up to her. With the help of her father, she has written a book, Carly’s Voice, giving an insider’s view of autism.

My reaction to Carly’s story is a mixture of admiration and skepticism. Admiration because this girl has clearly achieved more than anyone thought she would. She has found a way to communicate, she has co-authored a book, and by all accounts she is now attending college. Good for her. And I don’t say that in a snarky, sarcastic way. I say it with all sincerity.

The skepticism arises from her reaction at being rejected as a Cover Girl model. She seems to be of the opinion that (a) Cover Girl rejected her because she has autism, and that (b) the reason Cover Girl should have accepted her is because she has autism.

Let me pause for a moment to say that I’m not intending to start a big debate about media portrayals of beauty. Yes, I know that the models we see on magazine covers have been Photoshopped to Kingdom Come. Yes, I’m aware that real people don’t look like that in real life.

I also know that physical beauty has nothing whatsoever to do with the presence or absence of autism. There are ordinary-looking people with and without autism, and there are absolutely show-stoppingly gorgeous people with and without autism. As the parent of a child with autism, I have heard many insults and unfair stereotypes aimed at people who are on the spectrum. But I have never heard anyone claim that people with autism are ugly.

This leads me to the following question: should Carly Fleischmann be granted a Cover Girl contract in spite of not meeting their physical standards, just because she has autism? I’m no oil painting myself, but I would venture to say that I have just as much inner beauty as Carly does. Why, then, should she have more entitlement to be a Cover Girl model than me? I’ve also overcome challenges and accomplished great things.

My son George is ten. He is described as “functionally verbal”, which means he has enough verbal communication to meet his needs. He has enough words to make requests and get by, but he cannot have a conversation. He has good academic skills, but lacks the ability to apply the academic concepts to real life. He can independently get dressed and use the washroom, and he can make himself a sandwich or pour himself a glass of milk. But he would not look at the colour of a traffic light before crossing the road, and if you gave him $10 and put him in a store, he wouldn’t know what to do.

I am big on accommodations for kids with autism. My child needs plenty of them, and if I’m to be realistic, he’ll more than likely need accommodations well into adulthood. He’ll probably be able to hold down a career – maybe he’ll even get to go to college – but he will almost definitely need to have his environment adapted in a way that enables him to succeed.


I would not want my son to be on the cover of some magazine just because he has autism – unless it was a magazine about autism, or at least a magazine featuring a story about autism.

Look, if my son turns out to be the fastest athlete in the province but is denied a place on the Olympic team just because of his autism, I will turn into the world’s biggest autism advocate warrior mom. But if he misses the Olympic qualifying standards, would I want him to be given a place on the team anyway, just because he has autism? Hell, no.

I want my son to come by his accomplishments and accolades honestly, by earning them. I don’t want people to say that he got this job or won that award “just because he has autism”.

What do you think? Is Carly Fleischmann right to be upset over not being accepted as a Cover Girl model? Am I short-changing my son by wanting him to be judged by the same standards as other people?

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: mhs.journalism. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.