To parents and teachers of autistic children;
Or really, to anyone who is working with autistic children, I want to ask you. What’s your goal?
I’m not talking about the various individual goals you may be working on at any given time. I know for myself I can really only choose a small number of things to work on at a time, which means a lot of picking and choosing. I’m talking about the over-arching goal. The long-term goal. The goal that helps you choose what to work on and what to let go.
This has been something that’s been burbling around for a while now, in my head. I lurk in a few different autism spaces (not because I’m trying to be creepy, I’m just really more of a lurker than a participator no matter where I am), and I see parents asking for help or advice about various challenges they are facing with their children. Sometimes those questions are good, and sometimes those questions leave me raising my eyebrows as to why, exactly, a parent is choosing to fight that particular battle. I’m talking about questions like how to stop a child from stimming, or how to force a child to do a thing that obviously hurts them, or how to make them want to socialize when they’d clearly rather read.
At first I was just going to write about how these are bad questions, but a recent conversation I had in yet another autism space gave me a new way to frame things.
A parent was asking about the ethics of autistic adults to teaching autistic children. I don’t really think they had a solidly coherent argument, but it was mostly apparently about how we have to make autistic children modify their behavior, and autistic adults have the same behavior so can’t teach the modifications. They also brought up the “blind leading the blind” analogy.
I thought that was interesting. I like metaphors, so let’s look at this blind leading the blind thing, shall we? Only lets change that to the blind *teaching* the blind. We live in a society that simply assumes people can see. All sorts of important information about getting around in the world is conveyed visually, and is thus difficult or outright impossible for a blind person to make use of. As a seeing person, I can never understand what it is like to navigate the world while blind. I can read about it, study it, listen to blind people who describe their experiences, but I can never ever really understand. Only another blind person can.
So who is best to teach a young blind person how to navigate the world while blind? Seeing people who cannot understand, or blind people who understand the challenges, make personal use of the tools at their disposal, and have been through the learning process that the child is going through?
Of course, maybe that’s not your goal. Maybe your goal is to make it so that the blind person simply doesn’t look blind. So that anyone who looks at a blind person won’t know that they are doing so and maybe feel uncomfortable. Of course, this goal is frequently incompatible with said blind person actually being able to independently navigate and live in our society. It would involve taking important tools away from them and leaving them dependent on sighted people in a way that shouldn’t be necessary.
It seems painfully obvious to me that the goal should be “learn to navigate the world while blind.” Saying otherwise is simply absurd.
So how come when it comes to autistic children, the goal is so often “don’t look autistic” rather than “learn to live in/navigate the world while autistic”? There will be times when these goals blur together a bit, but there are also plenty of times when they are diametrically opposed. If you have a goal to stop your child from flapping their hands, why is that? What over-arching life-goal does it fit into – being able to navigate the world while autistic, or simply looking not-autistic?
I really hope your goal is to teach autistic children how best to live in the world while autistic. I really hope that you understand what that means – including things like making sure they have the tools to do so, even if it means their autism is visible. It also means including autistic adults – people who know what it’s like, who have experiences in what works and what doesn’t work, people who have been there and done that.
Overall, it’s something I really hope you keep in mind when you work with autistic children. Someday that autistic child is going to be an autistic adult. What’s your goal?
Make it a good one.