Family Means Well
When we first told our wider family and friends that our son is on Autism spectrum, reactions varied from empathy to indifference. I have to say that neither reaction bothered me but it made me realize that while they did not know what it really meant, they just wanted us to be happy. Which means they said a lot of clumsy things that meant well but are borderline offense. Here, I want to share to top five things that fall under “I know you are trying and I appreciate it but say this instead”. Again this is just my perspective. Here we go:
1. “He must be a genius”: While I hope so and I, like many parents, tend to overestimate how smart my kid is, being on the autism spectrum does not mean you are a card counting genius who can solve triple integrals while spinning Rubik’s cube. This says the person is too lazy to do a little bit of google searching and instead relies on all the bad movie depictions of autism. Instead, you can ask how the kid is doing or about any therapies he is currently receiving. You can offer to help teach him music or any other skill you want to share.
2. “You are a wonderful parent”: This is usually said after the kid shows a little progress like counting to ten. I appreciate the feedback and the kind words but I feel weird being congratulated for doing what parents should do. This usually says the person thinks children just raise themselves and do not appreciate the amount of work it takes every parent to teach, cuddle, raise, teach and mold a child. Instead, congratulate the parent on the kid’s progress and ask if they are getting proper rest.
3. “I am sorry/When are you having another one?”: My least favorite one and a special of African extended families. I especially hate it when it comes up after the person finds out our son is on the spectrum. The low whispered, semi-conspiration version is even worse and makes growl before the person finishes the sentence. This one says the person thinks you have a faulty child, when are you getting a replacement. I can also appreciate that you are sorry but there is nothing to be sorry about. I think it is important to understand that children are central to African culture in very different ways that are hard to explain here. The person means well and wants to be supportive but it never comes out that way. Instead, ask about the kid’s schooling and avoid talking about future kids.
4. “I don’t know how to interact with him”: Just like any child, a new face might be unsettling and unfamiliar. If the kid does not jump in your arm and gives you kisses ten second after announcing yourself, it does not mean “the autism” is at play. Take your time, let him get familiar with you and let him lead you. A good recommendation is to think like a child. Drop to their level physically and mentally. Think about what their interest is at this age. In short, marvel about the world around you and tickles with some chasing are the best ice-breakers.
5. “My friend/neighbor X also has son/daughter/nephew on the spectrum”: While it is great to know that this is not first time with autism, it is like naming all your black or gay friends when you are introduced to a black or gay person. It sounds defensive and actually says the person is lacking empathy. It is also not your place to tell other people’ autism story. Instead, ask how you can help and let the parent know you can be available to provide support. Sometimes, even a watchful eye while someone takes a shower or cooks provides great relief.
I have many more but it is important to remember that the person saying one of these sentences loves you. So rather than being mad, I smile and say thank you. I heard what you said but I know what you mean.