Friday, July 24, 2009

Elton John

A few weeks ago, I asked Martin if he wanted to play with his dress-up box. He agreed and eagerly put together an ensemble. It included snowman slippers, a cowboy vest, a plaid scarf, purple-tinted round sunglasses, an Amish straw hat, a purse, and a wand. It was really cute. It was also an outfit best suited for an Elton John lookalike convention.

In my research about parenting kids with autism, I read that parents are called upon to help their children navigate social expectations that allude them. Autistic kids don't pick up on lots of social cues, including fashion. (Interestingly, Martin doesn't pick up on gender. He always mixes up his pronouns.) When I read that I might have to help my child clue in to social expectations, I just about freaked.

You see, I hate that stuff. Maybe it's because I grew up memorizing Romans 12:2 in the King James Version at bible school. Maybe it's because I wasn't popular myself. But for as long as I can remember, I'm never thought this world deserved my conformity. In high school, I wondered why I would want to be like a world where football players and cheerleaders were the most popular? I found a little group of friends that, instead of getting drunk on weekend nights, scaled buildings, watched Chevy Chase movies, and played board games. We were actually pretty happy.

Even though my life looks more conventional now (I have a job, a house, etc.), I still have this little voice inside that urges me to resist. I don't have a TV. I won't eat food with HF corn syrup. I buy half my clothes second-hand. But now I'm supposed to help my son understand and participate in these social expectations? These parenting books recommend helping your child choose acceptable clothes, learn about the latest movies, and teach them slang. I'm not sure if I'm just resisting this because it will be another huge sacrifice OR if it just might be the case that autistics are right and the rest of the world is wrong. Maybe those of us who struggle with Romans 12:2 can take a lesson from autistic kids who can simply do it with no problem, no awareness, even.


  1. Very interesting point(s), Jen. I have no personal experience with autism (other than thinking that _The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time_ did a great job of starting to clue me into how some people's minds work...), but I certainly have a lot of experience with not wanting to conform to mainstream standards (and feeling ambivalent, sometimes, about the extent to which I have). I imagine having a son like Martin has presented you with some real dilemmas that actually have everything to do with mainstream society and your evaluation of it, and very little to do with Martin's autism, per se, except incidentally.

  2. Well, you have succeeded in making me cry tears in the University of Toronto library. I suppose that we could have a longish conversation someday about this. I have given quite a bit of thought to the question myself having grown up with a schitzophrenic mom who was very much a voice of reason as I navigated absurdity of evangelical Protestantism's fetishism of blood and bellicosity.


  3. Social expectations?? What does THAT mean, anyway? I think that playing into stereotypes isn't even healthy, let alone something we as parents need to take on for our child's sake. I'm thinking teaching him how to wear his clothes right-side out, forwards versus backwards is good enough. Or dressing appropriately for the weather, stuff like that. You'll do great, Jen... trust your instincts, because you're already doing wonderful work.
    Jen (Helmuth Shenk)

  4. I think you're cool, but then I certainly never have been, so I'm not sure that helps.

    Thanks for writing, Jen--it feels good to know what's going on with you and to be able to share part of your life.

  5. Hey Jen, this is great. Thanks for letting us into your head and Martin's. I look forward to meeting the little man again someday.

  6. Hey Jen, as someone who also memorized Romans 12:2 in the KJV (certainly didn't have to look it up),, I've thought about what you've written here quite a lot since I read it on Saturday or Sunday, only to come up with what is probably a trite comment. And it's already been said up above. If Martin's learning what's acceptable from you and S., then he's taking on your resistance to things that genuinely need to be resisted. Yes, yes he has things right that the rest of the world has wrong! J. and take that as axiomatic, but still have to remind ourself of that axiom often. Learn from him where you can. But, it's also true, however, that you and S. have got some things right that the rest of the world doesn't. Nothing at all wrong with letting Martin get those things right too, even without discovering why they are true for himself.


  7. Jen, I've had some of the same thoughts as I have raised my two spectrum sons. I too resisted teaching my kids how to dress according to fashion. They probably had to put up with more teasing and bullying as a result, so this is something to weigh. Sadly, kids on the spectrum are confronted with more bullying and are less able to cope with it than other kids. Helping them to find an alternative community where they do fit in, or at least where they can be accepted for who they are is crucial. But you are right, we have something good to learn from our spectrum children who are not caught up in trying to impress others.

  8. Jen, your post made me think of a book that really impressed me recently. It was called "Marcelo in the Real World" by Francisco X. Stork. Marcelo is a teen with Asperger's whose father makes him work for his law firm in the summer so he will learn to negotiate "the real world" (i.e. social expectations). The play between Marcelo's inner world and the outer world of the workplace is very thought provoking. I finished the book sorry that it was fiction--I would have wanted Marcelo for a friend.