April is Autism Acceptance Month, a month when many try to improve supports, services, and acceptance of autistic individuals. This year, 2012, is the fourth anniversary of the U.N. designating World Autism Day, April 2nd. Four years, one day, and a month dedicated to embracing autism.
And yet, some autism parents are still defending their right to say "I hate autism."
Why? Those who have used the phrase say it's an honest assessment of the difficulties of raising an autistic child. They cite the disruption to their family, the meltdowns, the sleeplessness, the worry. And they say it shows support for other parents who feel ashamed to admit their feelings and who feel isolated because of them.
But wait. There are many ways to communicate stress, support, and community without using "hate" and "autism." No matter how much stress a parent feels, we can vent and support each other without putting down a biological part of our kids and of many adults. We can recognize the emotions and challenges without encouraging hatred or hateful talk.
So why "I hate autism?"
Why would a parent put her own child at risk for abuse and neglect by making it okay to say "I hate autism"? Parents have immediate impact on how autism is perceived and how their child is perceived. Parents are the biggest influence on their child's life. They can protect or put their child at risk for emotional distress and violent behavior. By one doing one simple thing. The most important and predictive factor for negative outcomes in a child's life is one thing: a parent who fully and unconditionally understands and accepts him. (The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Journal of American Medical Association, Sept. 10, 1997.)
A parent cannot fully and unconditionally accept his child, but not "the autism." That's not unconditional. That's not acceptance.
Why? Children quickly and easily feel their parent's negative emotions and they internalize it, believing that they are at fault for their parent's stress. While you think you can separate out "the autism" from your child, hating the negative symptoms while loving the child, your child doesn't make such fine distinctions. He will recognize the feeling, maybe only subconsciously, and he will translate it to "I am acceptable only if I hide part of me. That part of me is shameful. There is something wrong with me."
Suppose a parent thought, "I hate the female side of my child: the hormones, the migraines, the mood swings, the possibility of promiscuity and pregnancy. Parenting a girl is so much harder than parenting a non-girl." The child doesn't think "You hate me being female." She feels "You hate me."
It's the same thing. "I hate the autism side of my child: the meltdowns, the sleeplessness, the fear of not knowing. Parenting an autistic child is so much harder than parenting a non-autistic." The child doesn't feel "You hate the autism." He feels "You hate me."
"You hate part of me" equals "You hate me." "You hate the situation that my brain wiring is causing" equals "You hate me."
Even if you reword the phrase, the feelings - anger, hate, and fear - are still there. The anger leads to shame and aversion. It prevents you from making a rich, complete connection to your child. You'll focus on the negatives. You'll feel disconnected and angrier.
I don't want you to change your language. I want you to change your language and your heart.
And not just for your child. "I hate autism" dehumanizes an entire category of people, including adults, including my child, including my friends' children, by reducing them to "autism, a hateful condition." You can't hate only part of a person. That's why we have laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, medical condition, and religion. We have these laws because you don't want people saying "I hate autism" to your child. You don't want them saying "I hate autism and, therefore, I can't hire, befriend, be near, or like you."
Why is it okay for you to say it? Because you're the one doing the parenting and it's difficult? Does that mean you hate parenting? 'Cause it's difficult. You hate babies? Marriage? Special needs children?
April is Autism Acceptance month. Not just awareness, but full-on acceptance, embracing the ups and the downs. Not "I accept parts of autism, the ones that are easy." Not "I accept parts of my child." But "I embrace my child, every single part of him, easy and difficult." And "I acknowledge that hating an inherent, biological part of my child is unacceptable."
I want to challenge how you think about autism. Because I care about you, your child, our community. I care about the world my child will live in. I want that world to greet him kindly. I want that world to be filled with people who lovingly embrace all autistic individuals for who they are.
So that my child will never know a person who hates only a part of him.