By Jami Ingledue
The first time I encountered Ben, he came up to me and my 4th grade daughter as we were walking out of the school. “Did you know (insert some random math fact that made no sense to me at all.)”
I looked at him blankly. Who was this kid? Why was he spouting math at me?
My daughter has always been way ahead of me in this area. “Hi Ben,” she said with her usual kindness. “How are you?” Ben said hi back and skipped off.
“That was odd,” I said to my daughter.
“That’s just Ben,” she said.
Now, I would be able to spot it: Ben was clearly on the autism spectrum. But I was ignorant at the time. And I’m ashamed to admit that my first instinct was to recoil.
But then that same kind and cheerful daughter became a teenager with debilitating depression and anxiety. She was also struggling with hitherto undiagnosed ADHD and executive function impairment. And I entered a whole new world, one that I had not been aware of or sensitive to before. Only now do I understand how unkind and intolerant I had in fact been.
Now, I am not an unkind or intolerant person. So why did I react that way?
First of all, I was ignorant. There is no way around that fact. I didn’t understand autism and I didn’t realize how common it is. And I’m also a sometimes-socially-awkward introvert who needs a little time to process things. So the natural human inclination in that situation is, I think, to avoid being uncomfortable, to avoid being in situations where we have no idea what to say. So I said nothing.
And I think due to my ignorance on the issue I also had this vague sense, which was never conscious or articulated, that kids like this would behave differently if only their parents handled them differently. If only they were more disciplined and didn’t let them have their way, then they wouldn’t throw those fits. We saw this same attitude recently when a Fox News contributor mocked a 10-year-old autistic boy by calling him a “snowflake” who needed a “safe space.” When used in this way, Snowflake (the insult de jour), means a hypersensitive, easily offended person, someone who has been convinced they are unique by over-indulgent parents, but who melts under the pressures of everyday life.
Repeat after me: AUTISTIC KIDS ARE NOT “SNOWFLAKES.” Neither are kids with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Or Depression, or ADHD, or OCD.
If you could see how much these kids work and struggle every single day, EVERY DAY, just to navigate their way through this world—and how hard their parents work to make this happen—they would be your heroes, as they are now mine.
Let me say that I absolutely understand the frustration people feel with the way we tend to coddle our kids today, to pander to their whims, to be helicopter parents. I am the opposite of a helicopter parent, and I think kids need independence and the ability to fall down, to fail at things, in order to learn and grow.
But here’s the thing—if you allow YOUR child to ostracize autistic kids, to reject them because they’re different, to make fun of them—then maybe YOU are the one pandering to your kids. If our child rejects a kid or a teacher because of their skin color, most parents (at least those who are kind and tolerant) would not allow that. They would teach their child that this was wrong, that we are all the same on the inside, that we should make an effort to be inclusive.
But when it comes to rejecting autistic kids? Anxious kids? ADHD kids? According to Michelle, parent of two autistic kids: “If I gave examples of rejection, the parent might think, ‘Oh, I’d never do that.’ But they effing do. 99 percent of the time. And if their own kids recoil from mine, they NEVER step in and model appropriate behavior. They support their kid in rejecting mine.” This happens regularly every day at school, but autistic kids also get left out of birthday parties, playdates, etc.
Honestly, this could have been me. Not because I actually consciously supported my kid in their rejection. But because I just wouldn’t know what to say or do. And because I was ignorant and unknowingly prejudiced.
Yes, parents, we ARE prejudiced against autistic kids. We aren’t necessarily conscious of it, but that’s how prejudice works. It influences our reactions before we even realize it. And the only way to overcome this is to drag it into the light of day, to examine it for what it is. In other words (in many cases), to mess up, and then see that we were wrong.
And now, after years of seeing my daughter work SO hard to overcome her depression, her anxiety, her ADHD, all of these debilitating conditions that she was unfairly saddled with in life—boy, I see how wrong I was. Do I ever. When just getting out of bed, when making it through a school day, is an epic battle—that is courage. That is resilience. That is the opposite of “snowflake.”
But my daughter has taught me in another way as well. As I said, she’s always been way ahead of me in this area. Perhaps because of her own struggles, she has always been extremely empathetic and kind, especially to kids who are obviously different or ostracized. She was way ahead of me all the way back in fourth grade when she was kind to Ben and I unconsciously recoiled. And she continued to be this way even while in the depths of her own struggles.
In the middle of her worst year of high school, she took it upon herself to take an autistic kid under her wing. He rode the same bus that she did, the bus where she was the undisputed Queen, because that’s just how she rolls. He was a difficult kid to get along with and would sometimes lash out and say inappropriate things. Nevertheless, she sat with him when no one else would. She yelled at kids who made fun of him and threatened to beat the crap out of them if they messed with him. She saved up her own money to buy him a birthday present. I have never been more proud of her.
So now I’m trying to catch up. Parents, we need to catch up. According to the Autism Society, 1 in 45 kids is diagnosed with autism. Its prevalence has increased 119 percent since 2000. Other behavioral health conditions such as ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, and OCD are all on the rise. These children belong to all of us, and we need to act like it, even when it’s uncomfortable and we don’t know what to say. Strike up a conversation with the mom. Invite the kid to birthday parties and events, even when it means making a few accommodations. It will mean the world to that kid and his parents. Set the example for your kids of being inclusive and kind and generous.
So now, when my first thought is “man, that kid is acting rude,” or weird, or spoiled, or emotional, or fill-in-the-blank—I have a second thought that quickly follows. Could this kid be on the spectrum? Could they be anxious? Could they have some emotional or developmental need that is not being met? And most importantly, how can I help?
Because we are the moms. That’s what we do: we help, we nurture, we support all kids. So if you still find yourself thinking these kids are “snowflakes”—first of all, please educate yourself on autism, but more importantly, listen to your mom heart. Access the parent in you, and treat them as if they were your child. This is how change happens, one act of kindness at a time. Remember, your kids are watching.
This is Part 3 of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here: ‘What I Want Parents of Normal Kids to Know’
Come join our “Behind Domestic Lines” Facebook group, a safe community for parents to share their experiences and support each other.
For more great Wild Word essays see:
Is Trump Toying With The Presidency? by Maria Behan
The Love Lessons I’ve Learned as a Stepfather by James Prenatt
Learning About Love At Grandma’s Table by Annie Mark-Westfall
Why Jesus Broke The ‘Billy Graham Rule’ by Reverend Rachel Kessler