How does one commit one’s self to being comfortable around someone with autism? First, you identify what’s making you uncomfortable. Second, you figure out why it makes you uncomfortable. Third, you consider ways to think differently about the things making you uncomfortable. This whole process has little to do with the person with autism and much more to do with understanding yourself.
Because every person with autism is different, I’ll start with the things Martin does that make people uncomfortable. He speaks loudly. He often ignores people trying to engage him. He invades people’s personal space. He talks to himself. He wears strange clothes. He talks about obscure things that only interest him. He will follow and try to play with children who don’t know him. He says he can’t speak Spanish even though he can. He is melodramatic. And most important, he often doesn’t comply with requests and commands made by adults.
It’s this last one that really drives people over the edge. Interestingly, it bothers people in two different ways. And here, I move to the second part of this week’s lesson: figuring out why behaviors related to autism make you uncomfortable. The answer is that it depends on what sort of parenting culture you associate with – old school or new school. Let me be clear: you do not have to be a parent of young kids to be a part of a parenting culture. You don’t have to be a parent at all. Participating in a culture of parenting is to have opinions about how parents should raise their kids and how those kids should respond.
Old school parenting culture – I use the term “old school” because the parenting culture it describes often refers back to “traditional” practices that emphasize parental authority and children’s obedience to that authority. In this parenting culture, the emphasis is on children learning their appropriate role in family and community life. Acting outside those expectations prompts discipline intended to change those behaviors. I grew up in this kind of parenting culture (as it is practiced in Amish and Conservative Mennonite communities). Children with autism pose particular problems for people associated with this parenting culture because they do not easily learn social expectations. They have trouble containing their impulses. Their brains make it difficult to understand what the community expects. People within this parenting culture often interpret behaviors related to autism as defiance to authority.
New school parenting culture – This term denotes parenting practices that have been popularized since the mid-20th century and focus more on the child as an individual. Parenting in this model focuses on nurturing the growth and development of individual children, with their particular talents, traits, and struggles. You might assume that autism would be somehow less troubling within new school parenting cultures. Let me assure you, it is not. New school parenting culture is deeply ambivalent about discipline. It’s torn about what sort of discipline to use for fear of being too negative. At the same time, any one raising a kid knows that sometimes you JUST NEED YOUR KID TO BEHAVE FOR ONE MINUTE. For new school parents, autism is terrifying. These parents can hardly deal with the disciplinary struggles related to typically developing kids. When they see Martin, these parents tremble at the thought of how they would respond if their child displayed autistic behaviors. While folks associated old school parenting culture are maddened by Martin, new school folks are terrified.
If you want to get comfortable around someone with autism, you have to understand why autism makes you uncomfortable. I once had a long conversation with my aunt Elmeda, a Conservative Mennonite. It was so hard for her to understand that Martin doesn’t pick up on what the community expects of him. She saw all the ways Martin acted irregularly. She expected me to use traditional forms of discipline. It made her uncomfortable that I didn’t. But once she understood that those methods would not work with him, she could get over it. She could open herself to Martin as a person and to me as a parent. I don’t have an analogous story to tell about someone associated with new school parenting culture. I find that these folks are highly invested in nurturing their kids using the mildest discipline possible while also shielding them from difficulty. It’s hard for them to be comfortable around me as I parent Martin. I have to be very clear with him and use tools of behavior modification that make them uncomfortable. Further, Martin is also sometimes difficult. New school parents don’t think their kids can handle something or someone difficult. It’s hard for them to imagine how their kids might gain the wherewithal to befriend him.
If you’re from an old school parenting culture, I encourage you to take a lesson from my awesome Aunt Elmeda. If you’re a new schooler, I’m not sure what to tell you. I don’t have time to figure it out for you. Consider this your task for autism awareness month.