Yesterday my son and I were discussing film and film stars, it is an area of great interest to him. We were, as you do, googling various things including Brad Pitt. As we scrolled down the Wikipedia page there was a list of charities he supports and I saw my son’s face drop as he spotted a charity called ‘Cure Autism Now’.
‘What!? There are actually people who want to cure autism? Why would you try curing something that is just part of someone? Anyway how would you even go about that if you wanted to,’ said my son.
Autism is so prevalent in my side of the family that it is pretty much the norm, much like ginger hair. At a recent wedding I was greeted by a 13 year old family member with the line; ‘So, where on the spectrum do you fall?’ In our world autism is everyday life, its the people we love, it isn’t a big deal and it certainly isn’t something to be cured. Don’t get me wrong fighting for support, and addressing mental health issues caused by lack of understanding most definitely is, but the autism it’s self is not.
So anyway I digress but the point is it is not something my son has ever been brought up to think of as bad, yes he sees his anxiety and meltdowns as a problem at times, but never being autistic, that is just part of his identity. However he turned 12 recently and I have noticed him notice the way autistic people are portrayed in the media and by society which in turn has made me acutely aware of it to.
The other day in the car there was an advert on the radio asking local businesses to ,give disabled people a chance by considering them for jobs. At the end they mentioned the types of people who might have great skills but be overlooked, this included autistic people.
A few months back I would of seen this as a positive thing, a campaign to get people into work who wanted to work but with my son sat next to me all that was going through my head was firstly, that he had never heard autism described as a disability before (not saying it should or shouldn’t be just he had never seem it described that way). Secondly that he has been brought up to believe whatever he wanted to do was possible and now the radio is telling him that even with good skills he may be overlooked by employers. These just two of the things that have brought to my attention the negative attitudes towards autistic people and how they are seen so often as broken and needing to be fixed. There have been many more.
So as a result I worry that my son’s self esteem will start to suffer and he will begin to feel uncomfortable with his identity as an autistic person. I have spent the whole of my son’s life building him up and making him believe in himself, believe his hopes and dreams can become a reality and that he is valued enormously. I now feel that I am on the brink of seeing his confidence knocked by the social attitudes, media coverage and campaigns by people who believe it can or should be cured.
I wondered how can we protect our children from negative messages about autism damaging how they feel about themselves?
Of course the obvious way is to change societies attitudes towards autistic people but that takes time so I have come up with a few ideas of what we can do now.
- Watch our language – Always speak respectfully about and around our children. Watching the way we say things, our language and the attitude behind it has to be the first step.
- Call people out – Picking people up who see autism as an illness or something to be pitied and discussing the positive aspects of being autistic.
- Talk about it –Discussing negative attitudes with our child when we come across them so the child can see it is the attitudes that are wrong and not the fact they are autistic.
- Find them some heroes – Having positive autistic role models. My son is very fortunate to have positive diagnosed autistic family members as role models but not every family has that so seek them out. There are some great autistic role models who have online presences and more and more celebrities who are ‘coming out’ as autistic.
- See the positive side – Embrace your child’s autistic-ness specifically as well as part of the whole. I often joke with my son about his superpowers (sensory sensitivity), he currently jokes he is deciding whether to use is amazing sense of smell to become a sommelier or the worlds first human bloodhound.
- Find an alternative view – Look for positive portrayals of autistic people by autistic people where ever you can. I can’t recommend ‘what We love love most about life’ by Chris Bonnello enough for this but also there are inspiring programs such as the autistic gardener, anything really we’re autistic people are seeing themselves in a positive light rather than programs which are written and acted by non autistic people and maybe strongly stereotyped. I enjoy watching for example ‘The Good Doctor’ but I cringed the other day when my son walked in and I was watching it as it is a very stereotypical view of an autistic person in my view.
These are just a few suggestions, I am sure there are many more but by far the most important thing is our attitude towards autism is our attitude towards our child and other autistic people.