Are we Trying Too Hard to Teach our Autistic Children?

Photography: Ally Grace

By Ally Grace

I often hear the phrase “teachable/teaching moment” within communities of caregivers. Whilst I can see what is meant by this, I question this base assumption that our kids must constantly and incessantly be being taught stuff.

I feel as though many of our autistic kids cannot escape from this idea that they must always be being corrected; must always be being taught; must always be building on skills; must always be attending therapies and social skills classes; must always be being “consistently disciplined”; must always remember every second of every day that they are autistic and that they have so much to learn, so far to go, so much more that they need to be.

I believe that as a society, we need to pause and step back from these norms, and consider the harm that is resulting from this. I believe we are harming our autistic children, all while thinking we are helping them!

Underpinning these fear-based, control-based choices is often the belief that our children need to learn to be more “normal” in order to have opportunities as adults, in relationships, in the workforce, in school, in university, and in wider life. The assumption underlying that is that this will help them. That becoming more “normal” somehow indicates “the real world”, or “reality” or “the way it is”. It is based on a belief that, in order to prepare our children for life outside of childhood, we must mould them as much as possible during a window now. This seems common and accepted – but I feel that freeing our autistic children from a medical lens and helping them to truly thrive, relies on challenging it.

I take a different approach to education, and to my children. I reject the idea that our children must one day slot seamlessly into an imagined-up future society. I see childhood as a realm unto itself; not just some kind of pre-adulthood. I also reject the idea that we must measure, with our own limited yardsticks, their successes and short-comings. I disagree that disability should affect the degree to which we will be respectful of them as people. I believe in unconditional respect and compassion for our children, and I believe in respectful and natural, play and learning. What this means; is that my children show me what they need and what they naturally gravitate to in terms of play and other preferences, and I do my best to accommodate these needs; as opposed to the other way around. Our culture already seems to hate kids and not want to bend even a little for them, and if this is true then it hates disabled kids even more.

I reject the idea that our children must one day slot seamlessly into an imagined-up future society. I see childhood as a realm unto itself; not just some kind of pre-adulthood.

When professionals and many parents speak about autism; and when they approach autism and autistic people – the consideration is not about whether therapies and behaviourist tactics (inherently including disrespectful practices) will be used. The consideration is which therapies and tactics will be used. If we are truthful, the real question most are asking is – What is the best disrespectful way to fix my autistic child?

There is no respectful way to try to fix an autistic child. That is inherently disrespectful. So, we need to throw away that question and get some better ones to ask.

This isn’t because therapies are necessarily inherently negative (although many are), but because this limits our thoughts and prevents further brainstorming and creative solution-finding. The base assumptions underlying the way that we socially refer to autism, the language we use, and the options we lay out for ourselves, could be questioned and challenged to open up new horizons. Support is something our children need; however, we need to untangle disrespect from that.

To give some more understanding about this, I decided to take things a few things I hear often and provide an alternative framing. The first listing is what fits with the disrespect of autistic kids that is so normal in our communities. The second part is an alternative with a more respectful basis.

What Early Intervention are you using?
Will you be using Early Intervention?

What punishments do you use?
Will you be using punishments?

There is no cure.
Autism is neurology. It’s who we are!

She will have to be taught everything.
Autistic people can have unique ways of doing things.

Children with autistic don’t know how to play properly.
Autistic children play differently to non-autistic children.

They need to learn to act properly.
You might not understand the way autistic people experience the world, but you can learn.

We are experiencing an autism epidemic! It is a health and resource crisis.
Autistic people are natural and have always been here.

I hate labelling! How can we be heaping these ‘disorders’ onto children?
Being autistic is not shameful and doesn’t have to been assumed to be a disorder. There is no need to stigmatise the way peoples’ brains work by refusing to talk about it and use accurate language.

These small shifts have the capacity to change the world! Questioning our assumptions can transform the lives of autistic children. The way we, as a society, refer to things surrounding autism reveal a lot of prejudice and a limited scope. None of it is necessarily malicious but it does tell us that our paradigm is limited. This indicates that we have quite a long way to go. It also tells us that we may be treating autistic people in ways that are questionable; because when we don’t accept someone then the way we treat them will be poorer than the way we treat others.

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