Only a few generations ago, some doctors blamed mothers for their children’s autism. Psychologists wrote long theoretical papers based on their observations of mothers and their children. They concluded that autism mothers were cold and that their lack of love triggered the child’s autism.
If you stop to think about that idea for a minute, those explanations were quite a leap. And a cruel one at that.
We humans look for patterns in the world around us–it’s almost one of our super-powers. We use the information to make meaning, and create loops of ferocious thinking that make the world around us a little better.
Therefore, knowing that we’re supposed to make things better, the Refrigerator Mother explanation for autism just begs the question. How much did those early theoreticians consider and—most importantly, rule out—before concluding they’d observed a pattern of mothers who don’t love their children?
Granted, many people were immediately skeptical of these mother-blaming theories, including other professionals and autism families. The theories fell after a generation, but the damage was done to the families forced to live under that cloud as they raised their children.
And, the blame game is still out there.
The latest iteration has started in a similar way, with people seeing problematic patterns in autism treatment. Young adults with autism are finding their way in the world. Some of them had good support growing up, but the world isn’t ready for them. Some of them had inadequate support growing up, so they have an added burden as they make their way in a world that isn’t ready for them either. Some are speaking up not just about the world’s unreadiness but also about that burden. We must listen. Autistic voices can help us find new patterns and new meaning and build a better world for all of us.
We should be careful about letting one person’s experience and voice serve as the representation for the whole, because that’s how the blame game begins. Even back in the old days, when information was scarce, we had the memoirs of Temple Grandin, Sean Barron, and Donna Williams to show us how different the experiences can be. As Dr. Stephen Shore once said, if you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism.
Here’s an example of how that can break down: some now argue that asking an autistic child to make eye contact, as a part of treatment service, is inherently abusive because eye contact feels bad for them. Missing from that argument is the basic context, the understanding that for humans to survive, we need to connect to one another. For most of us, eye contact is the fundamental way we begin to connect, from the very first time we hold and look at our new baby and our baby looks back at us.
I asked Sam recently (and for the first time) whether making eye contact is hard or painful for him. I told him I was especially curious now that eye contact changed for all of us after living behind face masks for a year. He said this, “Eye contact is very powerful. I wonder whether I make other people uncomfortable with eye contact.”
He’s right. It is powerful. And he just illustrated the point about one person’s perspective.
When Sam was young, we never forced him to look at us. But after a speech therapist suggested using sign language to boost his early communication, I found the sign for “pay attention” often helped us connect.
The additional movement of hands to face usually sparked him to turn his head or approach me or Mark in some way, so we were fairly sure we had his attention and that was enough to proceed with whatever was next. Over the years, we’ve shared eye contact in lots of conversations and tasks. But if not, we recognized the other ways that we were connecting and I didn’t worry about it.
All of this context—both the need to survive and the difficulty with a basic skill needed for that survival—cannot go missing from any conversation about the value of teaching an autistic child. Some people with autism do learn how to make eye contact early on and are fine with it. Some don’t. For this example, then, we can listen carefully to adults with autism and their advocates as they flag patterns from their bad experiences with learning to make eye contact and make changes. But that fundamental need to connect and share attention remains.
That’s when we also need to remember our tendency to blame others when our troubles feel intractable. Sometimes, in these fresh arguments over how autism treatment should proceed, I hear that same, tired pattern of blame I’ve heard since Sam was born. Take it from a worn-out mother who’s been blamed plenty over the years: some arguments are just another round of the same, they just come inside an elaborate wrapper of mother’s-helper blaming instead.
All the families I know truly love their children and are learning how best to respond to them. We can’t forget that parents have a responsibility to raise their child as best they can. Let’s talk, please. But please also, let’s spare the rollout of Refrigerator Mother 2.0, because it could cost us a generation of progress.
Peggy (after listening to an automated message lifting the boil water notice): Sam! The tap water is safe again! We can do whatever we want with it.
Sam: Except waste it.
Sam (inputting complicated equation for calculus lesson): Oh, poor Mathway!
Sam: It had to do a line break.
Sam signed up for mail-in ballots after the pandemic began. Texas allows individuals with disabilities and voters age 65 and older to vote by mail.
He registered as a Republican after learning that he would miss at least one upcoming local election if he didn’t. Turns out, he got two test runs with the mail-in-ballot routine before the big one — the November presidential — arrived. In mid-July, Denton County had a run-off between two GOP nominees for state judge in the 431st District Court. Then we unexpectedly had a crowded race of Republicans and a lone Democrat vying to succeed our former State Senator, who let no grass get under his ultra-ambitious feet as he hopscotched his way from newbie Texas resident and the state legislature into Congress this year.
When the November ballot arrived in the mail in early October, Sam opened up the envelope and spread its contents across the dining room table. He grabbed a pen and colored in the box to vote for president. He took a deep breath, saying that it felt powerful to vote for Joe Biden. He stood up and announced then that he would come back to finish the rest of the ballot later.
The ballot was long. It included federal, state, and county offices. It also included city offices, as the Texas governor postponed local races because of the pandemic. When Sam returned to finish voting, he surprised me how prepared he was to make informed choices all the way down.
He’d been watching our current president, and deteriorating conditions for a long time. He had thought long and hard about how to vote for change.
Our current president proved himself irredeemable to us when he mocked a reporter with a disability in 2015. The past four years have been so bad that it was genuinely shocking — and should not have been — to watch Joe Biden return the affection of a man with Down syndrome who rushed to hug him several years ago.
It’s a hard thing to explain to people who haven’t been on this journey, what it is like to regularly experience another human being’s black-heartedness in a deeply personal way. When Sam was little, we shielded him. Now that he’s an adult, we have to talk about it.
Those are the worst conversations. Not because Sam gets hurt, or because we don’t have strategies for him, but because we parents are hard-wired to protect our children. When I hear these stories, or watch things unfold in front of me, I want to slap somebody. I haven’t so far, so I guess the strategies are working for me, too.
Sam told me about a week before Election Day that he was going to want to watch the returns on election night, in hopes that his choice would prevail with everyone else. Election night was tough, but as the days went by, you could see the tension lift. Sam is not just relieved, but happy.
“I voted for Joe Biden as hard as I could,” he said.
Peggy: The Mayborn Conference is announcing a new contest, a short story in six words. Writers have been trying to do those kinds of short stories long before Twitter. I have a story like that. It kind of went viral on Twitter. It has more than 170,000 views.
Sam (laughing): Really? That’s great.
Peggy: So here’s the story. “Midnight. Wrong train platform. Shinjuku station.”
Sam (still laughing): That’s just a mishmash of words.
Peggy: So, how did the haircut work out yesterday? Do you need me to trim the sides a little more?
Sam: Nah. There was one spot, but I cut it and I think it’s ok now.
Peggy: You did? That’s great that you could do that. (pause) I’m not a professional.
Sam: Well, I’m ten times worse than you.
Peggy (laughing): That’s haircutting in a pandemic.
Peggy (driving by local art studio): Oh, look, you can see them preparing for the next class. Those classes can be fun. It will be like being in Mrs. Ruestmann’s class again for you.
Sam (absolutely deadpan): I’m bad at art.
Peggy (to Sam, dressing for the wedding): Your suit is hanging in the closet.
Teresa: What shoes are you wearing?
Some dreams aren’t nightmares, but they leave you feeling unsettled in the morning. For me, the best remedy is to get them out of my head and move on. Recently, we discovered that works for Sam, too.
Like his mother, Sam is not really a morning person, although I’m not sure what a morning person is. We both feel fine when we’ve had enough sleep. However, we don’t feel like we’ve had enough sleep if we have to wake up before first light, even when we go to bed early.
Sam rarely talks about his dreams, unless they are nightmares. But he struggled and complained about that “morning funk” this fall, so a few weeks back, I asked him if he’d had a bad dream and what it was about.
He said it wasn’t really a bad dream, but he didn’t like it. He dreamt he was driving and that, in his dream, when it came time to stop, he somehow wasn’t able to move his foot from the gas pedal to the brake. He worried it could happen in real life.
I didn’t want to tell him it would never happen, because it’s important to tell the people you love the truth. And the truth is, just before a wreck, you are keenly aware how fast things are happening in front of you and how your car isn’t doing what you wish it would.
So I told him I had my own version of that dream, a recurring one. In my dream I am riding in the back seat of a car, careening somewhere fast, when I look up and realize that no one is driving. From the back seat, I struggle first to get my hands on the steering wheel, and then try to get up front to get to the pedals, but I never seem to make it.
Sam laughed and said my dream was really funny. I told him that the reason my dream was funny was because it was both relatable and ridiculous. I asked him if it made him think about his dream differently, and he said, yes, it made his dream kind of funny, too.
Then I asked whether he thought the dreams could be a metaphor for something.
And this is where I am so very, very grateful for Sally Fogarty and the other teachers who were on Sam’s special education team when he was in middle and high school. Sally announced at one of the annual planning meetings that Sam’s speech had come along enough that he would pass the usual tests meant to detect deficiencies. But, she added, we all knew that Sam’s language skills still needed work. She suggested that she administer another diagnostic test and develop a plan that would help him with more abstract language skills–analogies, idioms, metaphors and the like.
A few years later, Sam and I happened to be driving into Fort Worth and a billboard in Spanish caught our eyes. I read the billboard and understood the words, but I didn’t understand what the billboard was saying. I asked Sam, who was also studying Spanish, if he understood the billboard, because I couldn’t. And he said, “Well, that’s because it’s an idiom.” And then he told me what it meant. That was 15 years ago, and it still makes me tear up.
Sam agreed dream driving could just be the general way we feel about how our life is going, and maybe we don’t need to worry that we can’t always steer, and honestly, we don’t want to stop.
As part of their initial job training two years ago, Sam and his cohort at the WinCo warehouse received important information about when, or whether, to disclose their disability to others.
We didn’t give a lot of thought to this issue before sending Sam out into the world. We had always treated it as a need-to-know basis. Not surprisingly, outside of school and the workplace, most people don’t need to know.
The Texas Legislature passed a law effective this month that lets people with autism and other disabilities who drive to privately disclose their disability so the information comes up with their license plate. That way, a police officer or highway patrol officer knows there may be some communication challenges ahead and to take their time.
Other public encounters can benefit from some level of disclosure. On both of our cycling vacations, we didn’t lead our ice-breakers with any kind of disclosure. But our tour leaders and fellow cyclists soon figured out Sam’s autism. They watched what we did to accommodate him and followed suit. In Germany, it became a running joke with one woman that Sam tried more new foods than her persnickety husband did. We fielded a few questions on the side, but our travel companions were simply curious about our family; they weren’t prying.
One of the lessons Sam and his cohort learned during initial training was that disclosing your disability often isn’t necessary and that it also comes with some risk. “People can take advantage of you,” Sam told me. Sam’s rather risk-averse, so he’s not inclined to disclose and we’re happy to follow his lead.
The other night, I shared a travel horror story from one of my recent trips, in hopes that he might benefit from my experience. I thought if he ever got patted down, he should disclose his disability to the TSA agents.
In my latest travels, the screening machine flagged my underwire bra. I was upset that they intended to pat down my side. I insisted on a private screening, which really bugged them and the passengers behind me. The twenty-something girl behind me was obviously panicked about missing her flight. Magically, they flagged her every limb, and her crotch, and she let them pat her down everywhere, all the while she fussed at me for not complying. I was sad for her.
Sam said he’s never been patted down at the airport. (I’m patted down Every. Single. Time. Don’t tell me it’s random.) But he had one of his own air travel horror stories that he had not told me about before.
He was in line to board the plane when the crew announced that they were going to do a bag search at the gate. Sam was caught off-guard, as I’m sure many other travelers were. (Perhaps, dear internet readers, you know what that is about and can explain in the comments below. We could only guess what it was about.) He wasn’t able to re-pack his bag quickly and other travelers were getting impatient with him. That, of course, unnerved him even more and made it harder still for him to recombobulate. A gate attendant finally had to help him.
I told him that might have been a good time to disclose his autism–not to the impatient people around him, but to the gate attendant who was helping him. I said most people might not understand why you need more time because autism is a hidden disability. They might even be embarrassed at their ignorance and impatience for not recognizing it themselves, I said, because most people are good and want to be kind to others. I told him that as you disclose to the gate attendant, the angry people would overhear it and probably change their behavior toward you, unless they are are real jerks.
Sam disagreed that it would have been a good idea to disclose, and that is his prerogative. It’s not his job to help the world not be a jerk.