Monday, September 28, 2009

why do we think these things?

While I prefer to get my information from books, I sometimes go to Google in search of autism factoids. In desperation, I have looked up "autism and potty training" and "autism and Halloween." (These were, in the order listed, horrifying and helpful searches. The former provided me with dozens of stories of autistic children wearing diapers forever and the latter gave me tips that helped Martin make it through trick-or-treating, including don't make your autistic kid wear a costume with a big headpiece and practice the whole candy-getting ritual in the hallways of your home for at least two weeks prior to the big night.)

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about autism and affection. I have been prompted in this by Martin's ability and willingness to say affectionate things. He's always been a hugger and kisser, but he struggles to express himself verbally. In recent weeks, however, he's had some speech breakthroughs. As I noted in a recent post, he told me that I should not go away for the weekend. When I talked to him on the phone yesterday, he called me "middle-sized bear," a reference to the Three Little Bears and a term he likes to use before giving hugs. Tonight, as I put him to bed, I told him that I had taken a ride in a boat in Pennsylvania. Martin replied, "I want to go on a boat in Pennsylvania with you."

Books on autism often mention affection. Many checklists of autism symptoms include statements about children shying away from affectionate gestures and refusing to look people in the eye. There is a common perception that autistics aren't affectionate. If you go to Google, however, you find sites in which parents of autistics try desperately to dispel this perception as an unhelpful, if not destructive myth. Myriad websites detail parents' stories of kids who hug, kiss, say "I love you," and express sadness when people they love are not around.

It is certainly my experience that Martin has always been physically affectionate, but that he needed lots of verbal development catch-up before he could put his feelings into words. I've always thought Martin was unusual in this, but maybe these parent testimonies tell me something else? Maybe the "autistics aren't affectionate" conclusion ranks up there with other common cultural holdings that are sometimes true and sometimes not. Like alcoholics can't hold down a job or feminists hate men or Saturday Night Live is funny.

This makes me want to think hard about the things we conclude about groups of people. How does it show us what we value? Why is it so bad if some people can't hold down a job or if others are through with men? Why is someone's ability to express affection more important than whether or not they feel affection and love from others?


  1. I bet the "I want to got on a boat in Pennsylvania with you" was a real heart melter.

  2. My autistic son is pretty affectionate, too. He says "I You" for I love you, though. I'll take it, no matter how he says it. He loves physical touch so I don't know if he's really in it to express affection, or just to get a squeeze, but again, who cares? Little babies aren't 'affectionate', necessarily, but we love them too and give them love? People are crazy with their judgments and decisions about kids on the spectrum. My favorite thing I've read about it is "once you know one child with autism, you know ... one child with autism".