A couple weeks ago I received the report from the school district’s diagnostic team regarding my three year old’s “condition”. Nothing in the report surprised me except for the fact that the description of my daughter’s mannerisms, which have impaired her ability to integrate into her day care classes, was also a description of myself at three years old. No, really, that didn't surprise me either.
Given my own upbringing and looking forward to the upbringing of my own, I am now convinced more than ever that I know what actually is this thing we call autism. You can call it a hypothesis or theory if you prefer. I am too busy living it to delve into the scientific process just to find out what I already know.
Previously, in my attempts to research, I would come across highly abrasive descriptions of “autistic behaviors,” which would stop my research cold. These descriptions were not intended to be offensive, but were clinical, scientific conclusions based on observing human beings as research subjects. The example that’s sticks with me is that apparently the flapping of hands “seems to be a way of relieving stress.” These researchers/writers have apparently never been so ecstatic or overjoyed that they physically cannot contain their excitement. I suppose hand flapping would also occur with an adrenaline rush of intense fear. Ever found yourself out of control of your senses shortly after a car wreck? There might have been hand-flapping, but I wouldn’t diagnose you for it. It wasn’t the description’s clueless and generalized nature that irritated me so much as the distinct lack of desire to understand a characteristic, much less the person, the writer had no problem dissecting. Yes, I took it personal.
If you were to meet me today you would not recognize me, assertive and self-assured as I am, as having once been my daughter’s clone. But as I recently told the school psychologist who apparently specializes in autism: The primary difference between my daughter and myself is Who Our Mothers Are. “My mother was highly authoritarian,” I told her, “And when you are afraid of your own mother twenty-four hours a day, the vacuum cleaner does not scare you.” I chose my words carefully and delivered them with a measured force designed to penetrate the ignorance of the expert. “Josie has the luxury of experiencing fear because fear is not a constant in her life. She does not have to operate in a state of survival, so she has the opportunity to choose which stimuli she would rather not experience. As Josie’s mother, I walk a fine line between coddling her whims, and seeking to understand her world as she sees it. If I can get through to her that I am trying to understand her on her terms, she becomes remarkably cooperative.”
She seemed taken aback by this revelation. As if a psychologist and specialist in autism never understood that a child’s emotional state cannot exist without the influence of his or her environment. I don’t blame her. It had been my perception and, I believe, the perception of most, that autism is a diagnosis “on the rise,” as if our modernized, air-conditioned, vaccinated society has given way to a new ailment slowly creeping in to undermine our population—how Spielbergian.
I, however, believe the inverse to be true. And I will continue to believe and expound upon my understanding as I navigate with my daughter the rigid mechanism of the public school system. I hold true that “emotionally sensitive” children have always existed. They are able to fully experience their emotions in a richer complexity than their physical bodies can adequately express. But until about fifty years ago, the reality of children—all children—was that they were a consequence—a byproduct—of adult behavior. They were an extra mouth to feed and the onus was on the parents not to smother the inconvenient little thing. Yet as we all know--really, you do--infanticide is humanity’s dirtiest little secret.
If those children of consequence were allowed to eat some of their parent’s shares before they could begin show their own worth, on their parents’ terms, and in a sense earn their keep, these children—babies—would experience within that elemental stage before they understood their own identity, whether or not they could relax into their parents’ embrace, or always remain at a distance, even while asleep in their arms. If you did not want your child and viewed him or her as a burden, if parenthood caught you by surprise and emotionally unprepared for the experience, that baby asleep on your chest is an extra mouth, an inconvenient little thing regardless of what you tell others, regardless what you tell yourself.
It is a testimony to the resilience and adaptability of children that “autism” was an unknown condition until the 20th century. It could be that if a sensitive child had an awareness that they are a burden onto their parents, they will not seek to further burden their parents with the inconvenience of their emotions. If these children wanted for nothing more than the approval of these people gracious enough to give them life then food and a place to sleep, there was great incentive to model the behaviors these people wished to see. The child will imitate the parents as the highest form of flattery.
Meanwhile, corporal punishment and parenting through fear had been standard practice since antiquity: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” “Children are to be seen and not heard.” These practices are the imposition of adult preferences onto the children in their care. If they be obligated to these inconvenient little things, a silent house of “disciplined” children was a means to temper their losses. With the exception of the rare enlightened soul, no one considered to view these children as each an individual with value which existed independent from their ability to appease their parents.
The sensitive child in this environment, an environment of fear and punishment which grew less violent only as the 20th century progressed, would begin to learn there was a peculiar comfort in fearing one’s parent. If the father tells the child to work with him in the pasture which contains a bull, if that child has less fear of the bull than he does of his father, he will do as he is told without complaint. The more often he experiences the pasture and the bull does not harm him, the child grows less afraid of the bull. However, speculation may infer that the child will also not venture into the pasture without his father. As a young man, the fear of his father’s disapproval (or desire for praise) may implore him to finally face the bull alone.
Today, in our modern society of birth control and in-vitro fertilization, we now have a means to only have children when we are emotionally ready for them. We are willing to spend a small fortune to produce children because we want them and are simply not willing to leave that to chance or to nature. We can also read books and formulate our parenting philosophies long before the first diaper. Then our little bundles arrive and we welcome and embrace and cherish them for the joy they bring to our lives. Our precious wee-ones in their formative months can relax into our chests and know that they are no burden because we asked them to be here. They do not grow to fear their parents, they do not grow to think of themselves as an inconvenience that must be contained and controlled. Their emotions are unbounded. The fear they experience is real because fear is not a twenty-four hour constant in their lives.
From speaking to other parents of “different” kids like most of those of my family, I am comfortable saying that some children have an awareness that no matter what a parent does, they (the children) are in full control of their existence. These children know that no one on this Earth can force them to speak if they don’t wish to speak. But to not speak is an act of anxiety as well as an act of control. I recognize the phenomena of a child who once did speak suddenly becoming silent as his or her reality comes into focus between the second and third birthdays. I also know of toddlers who would once walk straight off the end of a bed without a hint of fear because they did not know the concept of falling. Then they learn the nature of a fall and what can cause it and the toddler—older, wiser now, more fearful—makes the choice herself that walking off the end of the bed is not in her best interest.
Next Post on this Subject: To School to Soon?