There are few perks that come with the severity of Teghan’s autism. We will take what we can get. Falling lower on the spectrum makes her autism more obvious- and with that comes easier acceptance and understanding from others. If there are services to be qualified for, it is usually an open and shut case. If there is a meltdown in public, most people catch on right away to what is really happening. People overall seem to be more supportive and less judgmental. Even those loud mouths out there who believe autism is not real do tend to accept our case as a true example. How wonderful.
I think it mostly has to do with the fact that Teghan is nonverbal. It’s an automatic clear disability to most. And, most not really understanding that much about autism, they are willing to accept it as proof. But this has very little positive impact on our lives. It mostly involves people who don’t know us and who we may never see again (if we have seen them at all).
We would gladly take judgmental stares and accusations if it meant we could have a conversation with our daughter. On the other hand, it would also cause us additional anxiety, stress, and anger to have everyone doubt the validity of her autism. It would possibly make us feel even more afraid for our child’s future in such a cruel world. Actually, we know exactly how it would make us feel, because we have experienced it from our own family.
The first time Dave’s parents visited us after Teghan’s diagnosis, Teghan was three years old. She did not talk to them. She did not attempt to interact with them in any way, except for dragging them to an item she wanted so she could place their hand on it. She didn’t smile at them, wave goodbye, or make eye contact. She did not play with toys. She tapped on things, galloped back and forth, and wore a diaper. She was everything you would expect out of a child with classic autism.
My mother-in-law meant well when she argued with me that this was all normal three year old behavior. That Teghan was too young to care about playing, and that she was obviously trying to talk with all those vocal noises. She made it clear that we were letting Teghan get away with bad behavior by not spanking her. She believed we were using autism as an excuse. Maybe she wanted us to feel hopeful for a cure. But it was as if my mother-in-law was the good guy- defending Teghan from the mother who would give her own daughter a label as ugly as autism.
You see, Dave’s mom believed autism was just one of many lies created by the liberal media. I shouldn’t be too offended- she was also in disbelief that we recycled our cans. We live in Michigan, who doesn’t recycle their cans here? Well, she sure wouldn’t. She says the government can’t afford it, because big surprise- she has no idea how recycling in Michigan works.
It was not until a few months later, on a family vacation, that Teghan’s behavior would begin to challenge her theory. In a room full of our nieces and nephews, Teghan wandered around as if no one was even there. While her younger cousin played silly pretend games and chattered away, I imagine my mother-in-law was starting to comprehend that something might really be different about Teghan. She was hopefully starting to consider that it may be more than something that could just be beaten out of her.
Not everyone was so easily convinced. Dave’s sister and brother-in-law lasted five minutes into the family vacation before they were lecturing us on God’s desire for us to love our children enough to spank them. They were meeting Teghan for the first time, but had surely heard about her alleged “autism.” It’s our fault, really. We had the incredible audacity to use time out as a means of redirecting and calming Teghan. Why? Because it works for us. But, we were immediately informed that time out is a lie created by the devil.
Now, we do not spank Teghan. Forget Autism. Children can be corrected through appropriate consequences, and there are plenty more effective consequences than physical pain. We do not feel that spanking prepares them for consequences of adulthood. In biblical times I am sure it may have indeed prepared them. But I am not going to get into all of that here. Dave’s sister and her husband are very conservative in their views. They were uncomfortable with me working outside of the home, and felt Dave needed their blessing to become a stay at home dad. So a discussion on corporal punishment is going to be pointless. They spank their newborn baby because they believe newborns often cry out of anger, and that anger is part of a sinful nature. You know what I think? I think spanking a newborn is abuse. The fact that we clearly disagree so completely on this issue made their confrontation and advice that much more insulting.
Okay, so I got a little sidetracked with the whole spanking thing.
The point is, the stigma has become so bad that even as parents of a child with classic autism, we find it difficult to convince some in our own family that it is real. In public we usually face little judgment, but I have seldom mentioned Teghan’s autism in conversation with someone who has never met her. Why should I feel like I have to clarify my daughter’s symptoms just to avoid eye rolls?
If Teghan could communicate, all of her other issues would be dismissed by our misinformed family members as bad parenting. We would eventually just have to decline all family events, and we would have that much less of a support system. I wonder how many other families experience this? Is it politics, a general suspicion of each other, or just a fear of autism? If it’s not real, it can’t happen to my child…. Maybe it is all of those things.
In any case, people need to stop responding with gut reaction to things they don’t understand. Like my mother-in-law not understanding Michigan recycling laws. She immediately attacked our recycling cans as a horrible big government plot. The correct response would have been to ask us how that works. She doesn’t know how it works, so what other response could there be? Silence would also have been acceptable. But like autism, I suspect people just aren’t interested in the details. People have a way of categorizing things instantly. To be fair, Dave’s mom has come a long way and has been willing to learn. I cannot say the same for everyone else out there.
I think if you make the decision to not know about something, you should cease to have opinions about it.