I was on a Facebook forum for parents of kids with Asperger’s the other day, and one post really struck me. A mom was celebrating the fact that her son went to a high school football rally. It took a while for her to convince him to go, she explained, but he went. Apparently, he went by himself and stayed for the whole rally. He reported back that it was pretty boring and that he didn’t have a good time, but that didn’t stop her from celebrating his “achievement” and proudly sharing it on our forum. I imagine she praised him for his good work as well. In the comments, a dad said that he and his wife made their son go to a dance. They dropped him off and refused to pick him up for two hours. The dad reported that he had told his son that he needed to be more social. The boy had a bad time, the dad commented; however, that was o.k., he explained, because it was a learning experience.
The more I thought about these situations, the more upset I became. I can only speak for myself, but going to a high school pep rally by oneself and being bored the whole time sounds horrible. What a miserable evening. Why was the mom celebrating it? I know. I get it; she was celebrating that her usually introverted son was getting out and being social. But, is that really a good idea? Doesn’t that send the message to her son that he should be more like the crowd, i.e., more like the neurotypical kids enjoying the rally? Likewise, forcing a child to attend a dance in the naive hope that it would make him more social says to the child that he should behave more like the other kids. It conveys the judgment that the child is wrong for being who he is.
I’ve seen similar posts about family parties and birthday parties. Aspie parents are often delighted when their kids attend these events. This is largely due to the fact that their kids tend to not want to go these functions (there are exceptions, of course; some autistic kids do want to attend parties). The parents are then thrilled when their child does participate, and they make a big deal of it. What I rarely see is parents celebrating that their kid made an awesome village in Minecraft. There is a bias toward praising kids for behaving more like neurotypical kids. I can’t imagine that this would be good for a child’s self-esteem. I would feel confused if I got back from a pep rally that I found boring and irritating only to find my mom praising me for enduring it. I would wonder: am I supposed to be like the people who enjoy these events? Why is that so special? Why does my mom prefer their more outgoing personalities over mine?
Autistic kids can be pretty stubborn when it comes to changing who they are, –as they should be. It would be better to embrace their eccentricities rather than fight them. Parents are asking for a lifetime of conflict when they don’t. For example, at age five, Cam’s interests and preferences are already well defined. He is a dedicated nudist. He shuns footwear of all kinds. He hates babies, which he tells us regularly. He loves computers, tablets, phones, clocks, safes, and mechanical gadgets of all kinds. He doesn’t like dining out or going to the movies. He loves adults and sophisticated conversations, particularly conversations about paleontology. His preferences for recreation revolve around hiking, studying nature, and catching frogs. He is partial to sea creatures of the Cretaceous period, but is kind of “done” with dogs and other modern, domesticated pets. I don’t see him getting his hair cut ever again. When he is nervous, he likes to twirl his arms in large circles. And, if you really push him for a hug when he’s not ready, you might get a push instead. He likes his boundaries respected, thank you very much! Camden doesn’t just march to his own drummer; he is re-writing the music of the entire band, –which incidentally reminds me, his latest passion is swing music. This is not a kid who is likely to enjoy standing around applauding the football team. He has his own things to do. Perhaps the football team should cheer him on!
My husband and I celebrate Cam’s individuality; this is where he finds his bliss. We’re not interested in “fixing” him or curing him of anything. He is very social in his own way. We don’t care about him attending pep rallies or school dances. I could imagine him much happier in a lab or a music studio working alone or in a small group. And that would be great. We want him to be happy and proud of himself the way he is. I think this is the direction we need to move in as a community. We need to respect our kids for who they are and celebrate their achievements in the realms they have chosen as important. If we don’t embrace our kids for who they are, how can we expect the world to embrace them?