That’s a post by Zilari that everyone should read. Laurentius Rex also wrote a Larry Arnold Myth and Reality post recently. I’ve wanted to write a post like that for awhile, but the reality is often far longer and harder to write about than the myth, so I’ve steered clear of it.
One myth that I haven’t seen mentioned on either of those posts, though, is one that’s still hard for me to wrap words around. Something like: The myth of the autistic person as having priest-like powers to absolve parents of real or perceived sin.
Years ago, I was talking to a mother of an autistic kid. She seemed to have some desire to get me to pronounce things she was doing okay, as if me saying they were okay would make them okay. She talked about how she stared at her son sometimes and wondered what things would be like if he’d been normal. And she talked about wondering and wondering and wondering if it was the vaccines. And she seemed to not be satisfied in telling me this until I said something along the lines of “Yeah, those things are understandable.”
Later, I’ve had people throw things they’ve done in my face, weapon-like. Another parent who had institutionalized their child told me all about what a wonderful and caring parent they were, and what a wonderful and caring institution their child was in. They really seemed to want some kind of acknowledgement that institutions were really okay. When I didn’t give it to them (and told them I was not going to continue the conversation), they wrote several times a day with increasing amounts of detail about what a loving person they were and how I had grievously attacked them even if I looked innocent. The accusatory posts (ones in which many false and negative things were said about me) came so many times a day that I had to stop reading the forum until the person either left or got banned (I can’t remember which).
That’s an extreme example. Most people don’t become quite so overtly hostile. But many people do seem to look to autistic people to reassure them that what they are doing or have done is okay. And often go to greath lengths to justify to any autistic person they meet that whatever program they do or don’t have their child on is really okay and really useful in this child’s case (whether or not it actually is).
The reality of the myth is that neither I nor any other autistic person I know has the power to make things right that are not right, or to convince a person that they are doing the right thing if their conscience keeps bugging them. If we do provide such reassurance, it won’t make it real, it won’t make certain things right. Those things are between a person and whatever it is in their life that they attribute a sense of ethical behavior to.
An autistic person’s reassurance won’t make anything better. What it will do, though, is possibly make a person feel better for a time about whatever they are doing, whether what they’re doing is right or wrong or some combination of the two. It will also lend some kind of credence to what is going on — “See, an autistic person approves of it, therefore it must be okay.” And it can even be used against other autistic people: “See, this autistic person approves. He’s a nice autistic person who is truly interested in the welfare of other autistic people. The rest of you who don’t approve? You’re just cold, heartless people who don’t understand the real situation.” One thing it doesn’t do is automatically make something okay. Any so-called “treatment” for autism can acquire at least one autistic person backing it. It doesn’t make them, or the mindset behind them, correct.
So, to anyone who comes to me (possibly to any other autistic person, but for all I know some don’t care) and tries to justify everything they’ve ever done to their child, in the hope that I’ll tell them, “Yes, that’s really a good thing” (and I’ve known people who are explicitly doing that, so if you’re truly not doing that, I’m not talking about you, but if you are doing that and want to think you’re not, go detangle your head or something) you’d be better off just trying to figure out right and wrong. I’m tired of being put into situations where the only acceptable or compassionate answer is considered to be “You’re right, you’ve done nothing wrong, you need to change nothing.”
When people interested in the rights of rabbits tell me that keeping rabbits in hutches with no stimulation grievously harms the rabbit, I do not tell them, “I put my rabbit in a hutch before. And that was right for my rabbit. Please tell me that was okay. I’m a good person. Really. I petted my rabbit. I fed my rabbit and gave him water every day. I’m not a monster. I didn’t do anything wrong. I loved my rabbit. And I was only a kid. Don’t hold it against me.”
Most, in fact, understand the concept of having done something wrong and knowing it was wrong and changing what you’re doing. But I doubt they’d have the patience for someone trying to prove that what’s really a form of animal cruelty is right, even if it’s genuinely true that for a long time I didn’t know any better. If I were sitting there trying to justify it to myself by justifying it to the House Rabbit Society, I’m sure the HRS would eventually just want me to go away, and they certainly would not sit there and tell me that my attitude was understandable and that I was clearly a loving person so what I did didn’t harm that rabbit after all. If I showed remorse, most of them would accept me and even work alongside me, but I doubt they’d want to accept what I’d done, and I wouldn’t want them to, fear of being wrong gets in the way of doing what’s right (and is also, in the form I’m talking about, just plain self-centered, always directing things back to “Am I a good person?” and making everyone around the person get into the role of reassuring them and taking care of their feelings).
But in the autism community, one role given to autistic people is to absolve parents of any guilt they feel about their attitudes and practices. And that’s not something we have the power to do. Even if we pretended to have that power, it would be hollow. We can’t do that for you. That’s the sort of thing parents have to work out (and really work out, not just come up with a long string of rationalizations glued together by prejudices and misconceptions or something) for themselves. Nobody — not autistic people, not other parents — can do that for them, any more than a person telling me that my prior attitude to rabbits was okay, could do that for me.