10 Things That Shouldn’t Be Assumed About My Child With Autism


1. Don’t assume that my child has low intelligence. Kids with autism are often capable of more than we give them credit for. Many of them have varying degrees of communication delays, which is why people don’t always realize the extent of their intelligence. As a result, they are often excluded from games and activities, when they should at least be given the option of participating.

2. Don’t assume that my child is a genius. When I tell people that my son is autistic, they immediately assume that he’s like Rain Man. Autistic savants do exist, but they are extremely rare. My son does have his strengths, and some of them could well turn out to be career material. But he’s unlikely to be the next Einstein, and people should not expect him to have some savant-like party-trick up his sleeve.

3. Don’t assume that my child doesn’t understand anything you say. Speech development in kids is divided roughly into two categories: expressive language (what a child says, or expresses) and receptive language (what a child understands, or receives). For many kids with autism, receptive language far outpaces expressive language, meaning a child who is non-verbal can understand and process a lot of what is said to him or her. It drives me crazy when people say things like, “Would your son like some juice?” when he is standing right beside me. Ask him if he’d like some juice. There’s a decent chance that he’ll answer, and the best way for him to develop his language skills is by practicing them.

4. Don’t assume that my child understands everything you say. Autism is an invisible disability. Apart from a very slight awkwardness in his gait, my son looks just like any other kid his age. You cannot tell just by looking at him that he has a disability. Therefore, one could be forgiven for assuming that he has the same language capabilities as other kids. If my son hesitates to answer you or act on what you’re saying, try breaking down your sentence into smaller, simpler chunks.

5. Don’t assume that my child “needs discipline”. Yes, I have on many occasions been “that mom”. You know, the one everyone is staring at because of her child melting down in the grocery store or making loud vocalizations in a restaurant. Most people, to their credit, are very understanding once they know that autism is in the picture, but there are always those who insist that a swift smack on the behind is all that is needed. I once had an elderly woman telling me, “In my day, no child was autistic because we were raised with discipline.” Here’s the truth: a meltdown can be awkward and uncomfortable for the parents and any onlookers, but it is a thousand times worse for the overwhelmed, anxiety-ridden child who is experiencing it.

6. Don’t assume that my child isn’t capable of misbehaviour. My son is twelve, and he has a twelve-year-old’s attitude. He is going through the same moodiness and unpredictability that other pubescent kids go through. It is easy to use autism as the default explanation for his behaviour, but as a doctor told me many years ago, “He is a boy with autism, but he is first and foremost a boy.” I have become quite adept at distinguishing my son’s “autistic” behaviour from his “typical bratty kid” behaviour, and I react accordingly.

7. Don’t assume that my child is incapable of emotion. Because he really isn’t. One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding autism is that autistics do not have the capacity for love and empathy. My son is one of sweetest, most loving people I have ever come across. He is full of hugs for the people he loves, and making people happy brings him joy. Here’s something he has done since he was little: when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he gets up to check on his younger brother and make sure he’s covered with a blanket.

8. Don’t assume that my child knows how to react to emotion. My son is undoubtedly an emotional being, but he does not always know how to respond to the emotions of others. And when he doesn’t know how to respond, his default reaction is hysterical laughter. This understandably appears to be incredibly insensitive to someone who is crying, but it’s a simple case of my son not knowing how to process something. He knows that crying is associated with sadness – he simply doesn’t know what to do with that.

9. Don’t assume that my child is not a social being. It is true that at times, social gatherings make my son uncomfortable. His tolerance for noise and crowds is definitely lower than that of most people, and for that reason we always choose to have events like Christmas and birthday parties at home. That way, he can retreat when he needs to. But in general, my son likes people. He likes being around them and interacting with them in his own way.

10. Don’t assume that my child is socially aware. To my knowledge, my son has never been around anyone who would deliberately want to do him harm. At his school, the general student body is tremendously respectful and protective toward the special needs kids. I have never had to worry about bullying or discrimination, but I know that this may not always be the case. My son is very trusting, as many people with autism are. He has limited sense of danger, as many people with autism do. He does not really have the capacity to understand that people can act nice but have not-so-nice motives.

This is an original post for Running for Autism by Kirsten Doyle.


The boy on the bus

Yesterday, while I was in the bus on the way home, a child started to cry. He couldn’t have been older than two, and he cried in that all-out, heart-felt, unrestrained way that only very young children can achieve. It was a scorching hot day and the bus was crowded: the child was stressed and exhausted and there were no seats available for him or his mother. To add insult to injury, the child’s shoe came off and rolled behind a couple of other passengers. This can be a big deal for a small child who’s already having a hard day.  Because the bus was jam-packed, well-meaning passengers were not able to bend over to pick the shoe up, so it had to stay where it was until the crowd had cleared a little.

The crying was relentless, and painful to listen to.  The child’s mother was trying to calm him down while at the same trying to take care of the other child she had with her.  She was clearly overwrought; I had a moment of direct eye contact with her, and she had pure desperation written all over her.  Not surprisingly, people were staring, drawn as they are to focus on loud noises around them. Some were understanding, some were visibly annoyed. One man offered the mother and child his seat: she politely declined, saying that she wanted to remain near the front of the bus, no doubt to make a quick escape without having to fight through crowds.

After a while, the lost shoe was returned to its rightful owner, and the child’s mother succeeded in calming the crying somewhat.  Instead of out-and-out howls of outrage, there were quiet snuffles with the occasional bout of loud crying. Eventually, the mother got off the bus with her two children, but not without being rudely pushed out of the way by a man whose life must have depended on him exiting first.

As soon as the bus doors closed, the woman sitting beside me, who you could tell just by looking at her had issues, loudly proclaimed, “Well! That child needs a good hiding!”

Maybe it was the not-so-subtle waves of disapproval and judgmentalness radiating from her.  Or maybe I was just in one of those perverse bloody-minded moods I get into from time to time. Or maybe I’ve simply become one of those moms who cannot shut up when her view of how the world should be is violated. Whatever the case, I couldn’t just let that remark go.

“Why spank a sweet child like that?” I asked innocently.

The woman looked at me incredulously, and scrunched her face up into a sour expression, earning her the title in my mind of Lemon-Face. She said, “He is so badly behaved.  I cannot believe any mother would let her child get away with that.”

By now, she had the attention of every single passenger on the bus. It was blatantly obvious to everyone, except her, that the child had not been misbehaving.  He had just been very upset and unable to cope with it. None of the other passengers, however, wanted to participate in the dialogue, and I found them all looking expectantly at me.

I stated the obvious, which was that she should give this kid a break, he was no more than two, and then went on to say, “Besides, you don’t even know the circumstances. Maybe he was just at the doctor and had his shots. Maybe he’s not feeling well.  Maybe he fell on the playground and hurt himself.” I paused a beat, and said what was really on my mind: “Maybe he has a disability like autism and is reacting to sensory overload.”

Lemon-Face was nonplussed.  Clearly the type who routinely expresses prejudicial opinions without being challenged on them. Not to be outdone, she said, “Autism is just a fancy way of saying a child is undisciplined and out of control.”

Uh oh.

I had to explain, of course.  I had to tell Lemon-Face how flourescent lights can feel like fire burning directly onto an autistic child’s retina, how the hum of normal conversation can be like shouting, how a gentle touch can, at the wrong moment, feel like nails piercing the skin.  I had to describe my own son’s absolute fear of Wal-Mart check-out lines, triggered by some combination of senses that I cannot understand.

I had to explain how offensive it is to hear strangers remark that my son needs a good hiding – remarks that are always accompanied by the clear but unspoken implication that my child is that way because I’m a bad parent.  These strangers don’t understand what it’s like to be my son, or to be the parent trying to help him make sense of a situation that is scaring him.

I had to make it absolutely clear that spankings are not for everyone – least of all for children with autism who are having a hard enough time as it is coping with whatever sensory overload is getting to them at any given moment.  And yes, I explained that I am in tune enough with my son that I know when he is having autistic meltdowns that he cannot control, and when he is simply being a brat.  Yes, I discipline him if the situation calls for it, but no, that discipline does not involve spanking.

I don’t usually launch into impromptu autism education sessions while using public transit. On the contrary, my commutes to and from work are my “me time”, the only time I can really switch off from everything and just read a book (sad, I know, but we take what we can get). On this one occasion, though, I felt that I had to stand up for autistic children and their parents.  If that woman left the bus with a smidgeon more awareness and understanding, then I believe I did my small part to make the world a better place.