Sunday, September 27, 2015

The kind of autism that isn't talked about

As a lot of you might already have done, I read this essay recently.  If you haven't, you might want to read it.  (Link here)

I don't agree with everything said in the essay.  I don't agree that more awareness necessarily would result in less isolation and less lawsuits.  I don't quite agree with how depressing a picture is painted in terms of the numbers of non-talked about kids with autism.  But those are little things.  In general, I agree very much with what is said here, and I applaud the author, Bonnie Zampino, for having the courage to say it.

And I ask myself, why?  Why is there so little awareness or discussion about the type of autism this author's son has, and my daughter Janey has, and so many of the people who read this blog have children with?

I can think of a few reasons.  One is that most parents don't like to present their kids in less than flattering lights.  I'd far rather write a post about some step forward Janey has taken than write about parts of the everyday that are far more depressing---the fact she is 11 and not toilet-trained, the fact she screams and cries part of most every day, the fact she bites her arm so much it has a permanent scar, the fact her communication skills are so poor she suffered with a burst appendix for three days without treatment, unable to tell us how she felt.  I want others to love Janey as I love her, and I am always conscious of not making her "look bad".  And I don't want to appear to be trying to make people feel sorry for me.  I'm very aware of that.  I want people never to feel I am looking for sympathy.  That's my own issue, but I think it affects other parents too.

Another reason the tougher side of autism isn't presented more in the media is because it's not a feel-good story.  I read something recently about those ads on TV trying to get you to sponsor a hungry child, and how they don't generally show starving children.  They show cute, somewhat thin children in piles of trash.  People tend to tune out if they are overly depressed by what is being presented.  It's a lot more appealing (and probably gets higher news ratings) to show the kid with autism winning a spelling bee, or going to the prom, or playing the piano perfectly by ear than to show a child biting themselves or others, or screaming for hours, or banging their heads.  People would be upset by that, and tune it out, most people anyway.

Also, I think people like stories with a villain.  I think that is a lot of why the whole unproven autism/vaccination story had far, far more than its 15 minutes of fame.  It's a villain story--the evil government and medical community poisoning our kids into autism.  The fact that in the vast majority of cases that is not what happened doesn't take away from it being a good story, one that celebrities latch onto.  I've heard that some groups go as far as saying there aren't any adults with autism, because that muddies the story---if autism wasn't caused by too many vaccines, how could those adults have gotten it?  A child with a severe disability that just seems to sort of happen isn't a story we can feel outrage over.

The reality of children like Janey is something that people are not prepared for.  I've had the experience a few times that I am sure a lot of you have had, when Janey is met by someone who hasn't before met close up a child with autism, the experience of watching their expectations crumble.  They expect to be charmed by her quirky and interesting take on life, to form some kind of pure and beautiful connection with an otherworldly, unique child.  When they are faced with the real life Janey, most likely screaming and biting herself, maybe wet from a soaked pull-up, not answering questions or showing any interest in them, or perhaps showing too much interest, wanting them to play a clapping game for an hour on end---they get the stunned look.  I have become very familiar with that look, the look of someone realizing for the first time what autism really looks like.

It would be fine for most of the world to continue to have their sanitized view of autism, if that didn't mean that they weren't preparing for a future with a lot of Janeys in it.  Whenever people vote down money for group homes or moan about how much is spent on special education or continue to support organizations that give almost no money for actual direct care of the Janeys out there (yes, Autism Speaks, I'm talking about you), they are building a world that is going to be in for a huge surprise when someday, the Janeys are no longer able to be cared for at home.  People like Janey exist.  They are out there.  They matter.  I am going to try hard to be one of the voices that DOES talk about the other autism.  It's what I can do, from this little corner, tell my own story and hopefully, be a voice for Janey---my  beloved daughter with the kind of autism that isn't talked about.

1 comment:

Jodi Scheib said...

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. My daughter is eight and I have never come across a blog that I can relate to more than yours. We meet people who expect to see a savant, or a Rain Man when they meet my girl - and I am all too familiar of the look when the momentarily reality of it hits them. The well meaning friends who share story after story proclaiming that we don't need a cure, we need acceptance. The other well meaning friends who share story of their "slightly autistic/highly intelligent" child struggling with being bored in school and creating a hashtag #autismstruggles - all of this makes me want to post more about what it really looks like on this end of the spectrum - the lack of sleep, the self injuring behavior, the constant fear that she might really hurt me or her sister someday soon - the exhausting hypervigilance that comes with knowing that even the unseen or unheard can be a trigger that will set off the hurricane. The reality sucks.... with brief moments of overwhelming joy and pride. Thank you for sharing your story.