I spend a lot of time on the interwebs hanging around in autism parenting groups and fielding questions from parent of autistic kids. I’ve found it so rewarding to do my best to explain things and give my experience to help people. I generally try to stay in the communities where things are positive, and parents aren’t obsessed with making their kids non-autistic or think their children are nothing but burdens. However, even in these generally “good” spaces, there’s a statement I keep seeing that is really bothering me: “My child will never XYZ.”
I see it a lot. “My son will never drive.” “My daughter will never get married.” “My kid will never have a job.” “My child will never go to college.” Often times it’s said in a rather neutral fashion as if they were just stating a fact, it’s not done in a mean way or to trash their child. But it’s very very disheartening, because the word never is very final, and when people say this they reveal that they have incredibly low expectations for their child.
I want to ask every parent who has ever said this “how do you know?” That’s a serious question, how do you know that your child will never do something? Never is a very long time, and I assure you that, like any people, autistic people continue to develop throughout our lives. We aren’t stagnant. That’s why it’s especially sad to hear people making “never” statements about their children who are only two or three years old, because I can assure you that those kids aren’t going to be anything close to what they were like when they were two or three. How can you possibly say that they will never be able to do something. It’s impossible to predict, as I assume that none of these parents have a crystal ball with which they can see their child’s future. Even people who talk about their older or their adult children can be mistaken in this way. I know of people who couldn’t drive when they were eighteen, but got their license at thirty. They just needed more time to develop or be at the right place in their lives. And there are a lot of people who had “never” statements made about them that are now doing the things their parents swore they would never be able to do.
People will probably counter this by saying something like “well, I’m just being realistic in recognizing their disabilities.” But the thing is, you’re really not. There are many autistic people who do the things you’re describing, and I’d bet that they were just like your child when they were their age. So how can you know that they will never ever do those things? It’s just as unrealistic to say that your child will never do something as it is say that they will for sure do something. Now, might your child never actually do that something? Oh, sure. They may never. But why should we assume this to begin with? A realistic expectation is not “my child will never,” it’s, “my child may or may not ever be able to attend a college, but just in case I’m going to fight to make sure that they receive a good high school education with all the same opportunities as their peers.” Or it’s “my eighteen-year-old still can’t handle driving a car, so we’re going to make sure they know how to use public transit in case they don’t drive, but I’m not going to make the assumption that they’ll never drive.” Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone who can’t drive a car or didn’t go to college, but it’s imperative that these assumptions are not made as to not close potential opportunities.
If you’ve decided “my child will never…” you will inevitably begin, even if subconsciously and accidentally, closing (figurative) doors for your child, and that never statement may become a self-fulfilling prophecy as a result. You never know until you try, yet many parents are so stuck up in the “never” that they never try. Plus, your child may very will pick up on the low expectations you have, and may begin lowering expectations for themselves, which may prevent further development.
I think all this comes from the fact that we live in a culture that has very low expectations for disabled people, and especially developmentally disabled people. Autism especially seems to attract a lot of “doom and gloom” attention itself. However, we’re often a lot more capable than people think we are, and just a little bit of accommodation and understanding can go a long way. I think we can start to raise these expectations by not always jumping to the “my child will never” conclusion. It’s not super rational, and can even be harmful.
I’m lucky in the sense that I have parents who never fell for the “my son will never” mindset. Right now I’m at about the best time I’ve yet had in my life. But it was not always this way. One thing that’s really important to me is making sure that people understand that I’m not some “shiny autistic” who isn’t that affected by autism and doesn’t have any challenges or disabilities. I am doing pretty amazing things right now, but it wasn’t always this way. A few years back, my parents easily could have said “Quincy will never write a blog,” or even “Quincy will never be able to successfully attend school,” and some may have even found those statements reasonable. Yet my parents never really bought into this, and they kept believing in me even when there were many struggles and we weren’t sure where we were going to go next and how to get there. I don’t mean to brag about myself too much, I promise that’s not the intent, but this presumption of competence is something that has been super important for my personal development.
Though I am not a parent (I’m only 17 at time of writing), I understand that parents always want the best for their kids, and I understand that it’s important to have realistic expectations. But “my child will never XYZ” is not a realistic or helpful statement. Have faith that your child may be able to achieve much more than you could ever imagine, and by doing this the possibility of such may very well present itself.