It’s a situation many parents of kids on the autism spectrum have experienced: you get to the store and 15 minutes into your shopping trip your child has a meltdown. They are crying. They are screaming. You are down on the floor with them but unable to help them get regulated.
Now picture the people around you. They are staring. You may even hear someone whisper, “If that was my child they would know better than to throw a tantrum like that!”
Except your child is not “throwing a tantrum,” they’re so overwhelmed by sensory overload they’re having a meltdown.
Unfortunately, hearing unkind remarks like these is not an uncommon experience for kids on the autism spectrum as well as their parents.
We reached out to parents in our autism community and asked them to share some of the comments they’ve heard regarding their parenting. Here are the types of remarks parents have told us they’ve encountered:
1. Comments about autism being ‘bad.’
Like any other disability, autism is not “bad.” Mighty contributor, Nora Burritt, who is on the autism spectrum said it perfectly, “We are not bad people. We are autistic, and we need to be seen and heard.”
Here are some comments parents have heard:
How horrible it must be to have an autistic brother.
He’ll never learn to [fill in the blank].
Is he high functioning autistic?
I can’t believe you had another child after him.
The brains of people on the autism spectrum are wired differently, which means they process information differently. Different does not mean bad.
2. Accusations that something must have caused it.
Sometimes when people hear a child is on the autism spectrum, they wonder aloud what caused it. The problem with this approach is it suggests autism can be prevented, or that the mother did something during her pregnancy to cause it.
Here’s what parents have heard:
Did he get it from the vaccines?
It’s because you didn’t breastfeed.
What did you do wrong when you were pregnant?
While there is still much to learn about autism, we know vaccines don’t cause autism and genetics play a primary role. The parent didn’t do anything to “cause” their child to have autism, most likely, it was in the child’s DNA all along.
3. Criticism that suggests their behavior is ‘wrong.’
Imagine being told your way of interacting with the world is “wrong.” This is what many kids on the autism spectrum experience. We expect kids on the spectrum to adapt and become “as normal as possible” and point out all the ways we believe they should change. Kids with autism don’t need to change; they are not “wrong.”
Here’s what parents have heard:
What’s wrong with him?
Are you doing a genetic test on your kids with autism to know what is wrong because you don’t want their kids to be like them.
No, they are not being bullied, it’s all in their mind because of the autism.
You really should seek psychological help because there is no way he will ever function as an adult and the sooner you accept that the better it will be for everyone.
4. Comparisons that rely on problematic stereotypes.
Media representation often falls short when it comes to portraying what it’s actually like to be autistic. Unfortunately, people who do not know someone with autism may only know what they see on the screen.
Here’s what parents told us they’ve heard:
Oh, is he like Rain Man?
Have you seen The Good Doctor? Is she like that?
Next time you watch a show with an autistic character, find out if the actor is actually autistic. If not, chances are it is not an accurate representation.
5. Comments based on myths like ‘all autistics have a special talent.’
Of course, kids with autism have talents, all kids do. However, thanks to films like “Rain Man,” some people think that all autistic people also have savant syndrome. Someone may ask:“What is his special talent?”
It is true that autism allows the brain to hone in and focus on particular interests, but kids on the spectrum should not be held to a standard where they have to “perform” to show their value. Savant syndrome is rare, and having it doesn’t make an autistic child “better” than their peers on the spectrum.
6. Remarks that dismiss your concerns.
Most individuals who are on the autism spectrum are diagnosed as children (and some as adults). It usually begins with a parent noticing certain behaviors in their child or seeing a lag in development that suggests autism. Naturally, parents may confide in family members or close friends. The problem is, these parents are often dismissed and made to feel as if they are overthinking or being irrational.
Here’s what parents have been told:
She’ll outgrow it.
He is just really strange, not autistic!
If a friend or family member shares concerns about their child’s behavior, the only appropriate things to ask are: “What are you observing that makes you feel that way?” or “Have you done some research, what have you learned?”
If you want to go an extra mile, do your own research. Read books written by autistic authors, follow actually autistic individuals on Twitter or check out their blogs.
7. Spiritual platitudes.
It is not unusual for parents to hear spiritual platitudes. As a matter of fact, this may be one of the most common things parents of kids with any disabilities hear.
The most common comment people hear is “God gives special kids to special parents.”
Parents of kids with autism are ordinary people. Comments like these hold parents to a higher standard and can become an excuse not to offer support.
Mighty contributor, Adam Morris, who is a pastor, described it best:
My wife and I will be the first to admit we are not part of some exceptional brand of humanity. We get stressed out about caring for our little guy sometimes. We get tired. We become impatient. I can assure you, we are just like any other parents.
Pity is ableism. It means looking at another person and believing their experience is “less than” yours.
Here are some comments parents have heard:
I’m so sorry.
I don’t know how you do it.
I don’t know how you cope.
Pity suggests children with autism are hard to love. It assumes autism is tragic, when it is not.
Mighty contributor, Sheri Dacon, explained this from a parent’s perspective in a post:
Autism is not a tragedy.
My child has autism. Autism is neurological. As a result, he has difficulty learning basic social skills and in social settings. He has pronounced sensory issues. He deals with anxiety, inflexibility and irrational fears.
He is also highly intelligent. He is tender-hearted. He is funny and lovable and possibly the most creative person I’ve ever known. He is alert. He notices and remembers everything. He sees the world in a completely different light than anyone else I know.
He is not a tragedy.
9. Comments about ‘curing’ or ‘fixing’ autism.
As soon as autism is brought up, suggestions for a “cure” or how to “fix” it are often quick to follow. Autism is a type of neurodiversity. It doesn’t need to be cured.
Parents said they’ve heard:
Have you tried a gluten-free diet?
Oh, my friend’s cousin’s second son has autism and he got better because they this treatment.
Have you tried essential oils?
Mighty contributor, David Gray-Hammond (who is actually autistic), explained why autistic people don’t need a cure in one of his posts:
Many would have you believe that people like me offer nothing to society. That we destroy our families’ ‘normal’ lives and lack the ability to take care of ourselves, let alone contribute to society. This is a lie and it has to stop. Those of us on the spectrum are as diverse and beautiful as the neurotypical individuals who condemn us. We have a right to exist, we have a right to acceptance. We have a right not to be fed bleach or put through “chelation therapy” to “remove” the imaginary toxins that some falsely believe caused our autism.
Yes, I am autistic. Yes, I do suffer sometimes. No, I don’t want a cure. Please stop trying to cure my autism. It’s time for the world to accept autistic people.
10. Comments that suggest children with autism should be secluded.
As parents of kids with disabilities, we fight so hard for inclusion yet so much of the world seems determined to keep kids on the autism spectrum (and other disabilities) on the outside. It is terribly isolating. It hurts.
Parents have been told things like:
We didn’t know how to how to handle him so there was no invite.
We weren’t sure if he’d like it so we didn’t invite him.
They should have a separate school for people like that.
Children with autism want friendships. They have a right to an education. They have a right to make their own decision about attending or not attending an event. They have a right to be treated with dignity and respect. Children with autism belong just like any other child.
11. Questions that are just plain rude.
Unfortunately, some people are just plain rude.
Here are some rude questions parents have been asked:
Is he verbal? Hello, is anyone home?
Why did you waste the money giving him a university education? It is not like he will ever get a real job.
Is your son slow?
It’s never OK to ask such thoughtless questions.
12. Statements from other parents who like to point out they have it “worse.”
There is always that one parent who has a child with autism and rather than finding a point of connection, they like to point out how they have it “worse.”
One parent shared a comment they heard during an encounter with another parent: “Your son is mild as he can talk, mine is severe as he is nonverbal, so yours is easier.”
Comparing “abilities” helps no one, and parenting isn’t a competition.
13. Remarks that are well-intentioned but ignorant.
No matter how well-intentioned some people are, ignorant comments can still be hurtful.
Here are some “well-meaning” but hurtful comments parents have heard:
Well, we’re all a little autistic if you really think about it.
Oh wow, I never would have guessed he’s autistic.
Why would you want your child labeled?
My friend’s grandson was just like him. But then when he turned 5, suddenly he could talk without a problem and it all went away.
Awww but he’s so cute!
Do you think they’ll grow out of it?
He is too friendly to be autistic!
If someone says they mean well when saying something hurtful, take the opportunity to educate them. Let them know why their words sting.
14. Comments from parents who think they know it all.
Parents of kids on the autism spectrum know this person well. They do not hold a degree, yet they position themselves as an expert.
Here are some encounters parents have had:
He can pedal a bike so he can’t be autistic.
That child’s not autistic. I know what autism looks like.
He isn’t autistic because he’s too smart.
Any child can be on the autism spectrum. Depending on the child, they may ride a bike, sing in their choir, compete in the spelling bee, line up their toy cars or spend the evening playing “Fortnight.” There is no “one way” to be autistic.
15. Comments about your child being ‘undisciplined.’
It is common to hear people refer to children on the autism spectrum as “undisciplined.” Some look at kids who are in the middle of sensory overload or a meltdown and assume they are “naughty” or “bad kids,” when in reality they are just struggling to cope with their surroundings.
Here’s what parents said they’ve heard:
He’s just choosing not to talk, he can talk. He just knows you’re gonna give him his way.
One night with me and I’d straighten him out.
He just needs discipline.
He just needs a spanking.
She’s a bright girl who needs to take some responsibility regarding sensory seeking behaviors.
Your son acts that way because he doesn’t respect you.
He’s manipulating you. It’s willful disobedience.
Society needs to stop viewing kids on the autism spectrum as undisciplined. Instead of berating kids for their “difficult behaviors,” we need to provide accommodations. By listening to autistic adults and their experiences, we can help autistic kids get what they need today.
16. Remarks that suggest you are a terrible parent.
Almost every parent of a child with autism has to deal with this attitude. Other people deem the child “undisciplined,” then turn around and blame the parents.
Here’s what parents said they’ve been told:
I would never let my child behave like that in public.
Autism is just an excuse for your bad parenting.
He wouldn’t need accommodations if you just pushed him to accept this is the world.
Why are you giving into his food demands? Tell him if he doesn’t like what you serve he can go hungry. Eventually he will eat.
Autistic parents impede their own child’s development.
Somebody hasn’t heard the word no.
My child tried to do that too but we didn’t allow it, we made him just deal with it.
Often times, children with autism require a different type of parenting. Rather than demoralizing parents, what if we supported them and assured them they are doing a good job?
For all of you who parent kids on the autism spectrum and have heard these types of comments, know that you are doing a great job. Nobody knows your child the way you do. Nobody fights for your child the way you do. Nobody is a better parent to your child than you. You got this, and you are doing a great job.
If you are looking for more support, check out these articles or join The Mighty’s autism community: