See those parents sitting in front of you? Yes, the ones with the shadow behind their eyes, the furrow on their brows, the ones whose worry is a palpable aura surrounding them as their eyes dart between you and their child, sitting on the floor at their feet. See that father who sits with his arms crossed, leaning away from you as if to escape what you’re about to say? See that mother who is eyeing you with a mixture of hope and fear?
They know what you’re about to say. They know you saw it the first time they introduced their child to you, the first time they watched you watch their child flap and spin. They saw the way you looked at them and at their child, when they told you about their child’s language delay, love of lining up their soft toy collection, fascination with the ceiling fans. You saw it immediately, their child’s Autism, and today – after you’ve tested and assessed – is the day those parents know you are going to tell them that their child is Autistic. Or, more probably, that their child ‘has Autism Spectrum Disorder’.
I wonder if you think that the most important job you have today is to ‘break’ this news to this family. I wonder if you understand what your most important job really is. You see, the way you tell these parents that their child is Autistic is likely to colour these parents’ perception of their child for years to come. And by extension, the way you tell these parents that their child is Autistic will likely predetermine how that child experiences their Autism for years to come. That responsibility weighs on your shoulders: your language now, your words, will in large part determine whether this child flourishes and has a happy childhood that is filled with love and acceptance and respect. Or not.
You see, although you diagnose autism using the DSM 5 or the ICD-11 which frames Autism through deficits, and although your view of Autism is (by the very definition of your profession) medicalised and pathologised, you are now faced with a choice… On the one hand, you can choose to draw on your extensive medical knowledge to talk to these parents. You can choose to explicate why their child has a ‘disorder’ by listing all the developmental markers the child hasn’t met, all the ways they don’t meet arbitrary standards of ‘normal’, all the things they can’t do, all the things that make them different, and challenging, and limited, and ultimately less.
You won’t use those words, of course – you’re more sensitive than that – but you will tell these parents about their child’s social-communication difficulties, you will reference their ‘restricted interests’, you will list their behavioural challenges. You might be tempted to conjecture what this child will or won’t achieve, what potential will remain unfulfilled. Ultimately, you might think it your role to offer these parents a taste of the ‘reality’ that will become their lives because of their child’s Autism. And no doubt, you will offer these parents advice on therapies and interventions and next steps to encourage their child towards the goal of ‘typically developing’. No doubt, you’ll tell these parents about the promise of Early Childhood Intervention, about a ‘window of opportunity’ that will close if they don’t ‘act’ immediately, about which therapies and interventions are evidence-based to reduce Autism symptomology.
And if you do that, you will very probably condemn that family – that child – to months and years, possibly even decades, of denial, rejection, exclusion, isolation, stigmatisation, and pain. Because those parents will take your medical expertise and apply its implications to their child. They will look at their child’s Autism as something wrong, something broken, something needing to be fixed and cured. They will be haunted by what might have caused their child’s Autism, what they could have done differently, what they did wrong to deserve such a fate. They will, in all likelihood, sacrifice their child’s childhood at the altar of hours and hours of therapy which will, these parents hope, make their child less Autistic, less different, less noticeably Other.
And their child? Well, they will hear you. They might not understand every word you say, but they will understand your tone. They will perceive that you are ‘breaking bad news’, they will hear you say that you are sorry. They will read in every way that you communicate, that what is discussed here and now – this thing called Autism that seems to scare their parents so much, this thing called Autism that you seem to find so regrettable and such an unhappy circumstance, this thing called Autism that they have– is wrong, sick, shocking, awful. And, remembering that many Autistics are hyperempathetic, this child will receive all of your nonverbal messages, and they will understand that it is something in them that makes their parents weep, prompts their father to scoop them up in his arms, hoping to protect them from themselves.
And, long after your appointment, that feeling will remain. And it will be reinforced as this child internalises their parents’ perceptions. They will interpret their parents’ attempts to make them less Autistic as a sign that their Autism is wrong, broken, needing fixing and curing. And that child will, inextricably over time, come to hate their Autism, and (because they understand in a way that you and their parents do not seem to) since their Autism is intrinsic to who they are, they will come to hate themselves. They will loath that part of themselves, and learn to mask it, at great cost to their mental health and self-acceptance. They might become depressed. And you will blame their Autism. They might become aggressive. And you will blame their Autism. They might develop crippling anxiety. And you will blame their Autism. You will blame their Autism without once thinking that just perhaps the view of Autism that you gave to that child’s parents at this vital moment right now might have had such long-lasting ramifications, and that you might be at least in part to blame, and not Autism at all.
What if, instead of ‘diagnosing’ this child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, you ‘identify’ this child as Autistic, so that they don’t automatically see their Autism as an illness or sickness that needs treating, and so that they understand their Autism is an integral part of their identity?
What if, instead of listing this child’s deficits, you talk about their strengths first and foremost, so that they understand that they have gifts to offer that are valued and valuable?
What if, instead of pathologising this child’s restricted interests, you use positive language like ‘passions’, so that they don’t perceive of their wonderful pastimes as anything other than fulfilling?
What if, instead of telling those parents that they should prepare themselves for the possibility that their child might never say the words, ‘I love you’, you tell them that their child absolutely loves them and will communicate that love, every day, even if it’s not with words?
What if, instead of worrying that this child will never speak, you instead tell their parents that there are many, tremendous ways of communicating non-traditionally, that will allow their child to express themselves throughout their lives?
What if, instead of urging haste (and possibly inadvertently inciting panic) with talk of an early intervention window, you encourage these parents to pause, to process, to reflect? What if you persuade them to take the time to assess which therapies would really benefit their child, right now, so that their child has the chance to be a child, and not spend their childhood on a conveyor belt of therapy in a normalising factory?
I’m not saying ignore the challenges… these parents have come to you because there are challenges, so to ignore them would be disingenuous. I’m not saying don’t recommend any interventions… some will be vital to help this child feel happy and safe in a predominantly neurotypical world. But – just for today, when first impressions count so much – why not introduce this family to Autism in a way that is respectful, and positive, and accepting?
Just think… what if, instead of instilling a fear of Autism, you give these parents a lasting gift, the gift of the knowledge that to love this child – this wonderful, unique child – is to learn to love their Autism?
What if, as part of this appointment, you introduce these parents to the idea of Neurodiversity, so that they understand their child’s Autism from this first moment as a natural biological variance like any other diversity?
What if, as part of this appointment, you invite these parents to listen to adult Autistic voices so that they can appreciate what amazing, awesome lives so many Autistics live, if they are allowed to live as authentically Autistic? What if the resources list you give to these parents is filled with such uplifting, hopeful Autistic voices, so that these parents experience optimism because of their child’s Autism, not desolation because of it?
Because if you make that choice, the choice to inspire and enrich and elevate, you are instrumental in making this child’s and this family’s life unquestionably and immeasurably better, happier, more satisfying and enjoyable. Because if you choose Neurodiversity, you offer the hope of inclusion, community, and identity. Because if you choose to focus on strengths right now, you choose to set this child up for the success they deserve, you set them up to flourish.
So… The choice is yours. The responsibility is yours. Here. Now. With these parents and this child. And as they reluctantly turn their eyes to you to receive the information you are primed to give them, as they look to you for knowledge and guidance and wisdom and support, I ask you: how will you give it?
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.