Shattering The Autism Stigma With A Wheelchair

“You need to control your child!”

“Why would you let your child become like this!”

“Tell your child to be quiet!”

I’ve listened to countless parents, in tears, recount experiences with their children in public places. Watching your child with autism have a melt down in the middle of a grocery store would be difficult enough, but to also absorb the hurtful remarks of the public is unimaginable. Coming from a background of working with these families and studying in this field you realize that there is a general lack of knowledge and a strong stigma that surrounds the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. I’ve heard people ask me “do they even feel love?” or tell me, “children who have autism are aggressive and hurt other children.” And the classic, “autism results from bad parenting”. All of the above are false and my goal for this blog is to shatter the old, outdated misconceptions surrounding children with autism.

And I’m going to do it with a wheelchair.

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"I'm not going to teach you anything. Instead I'm going to change the lens through which you look"

Stigma stems from ignorance and normally the way to counter this is through education. I would teach you about autism, review studies, explain the diagnosing criteria in the DSM-5 etc. All of that is awesome but I’m going to take a different route. I’m not going to teach you anything. Instead I’m going to change the lense through which you look.

Let’s start by picturing someone with a disability. If you did, I bet the disability you thought of was visual. What I mean by this is you pictured someone in a wheelchair, or with crutches, or perhaps someone with Cerebral Palsy or Down Syndrome. With all of these disabilities you are able to look at this person and immediately deduce that they have a disability based on their appearance. This matters because as soon as you make this assessment in your mind, it is followed by experiences and knowledge that guide your interactions with this person. We know this to be true because you would never go up to a person in a wheelchair as they are having trouble getting up an icy ramp and say, “why don’t you just get up and walk?” or, “why are you rolling around in that chair, didn’t your parents teach you to walk?” This would be absurd, not even remotely rational as we can all visually see what this person has difficulties with. 

The difference with Autism is that the diagnosis is not visually seen in the child’s appearance, it is neurological. Put two children side by side, one neurotypical and the other with autism and take a picture. There would be no way of knowing who has the diagnosis and who does not. When we see a wheelchair we quickly assume that the wheelchair = difficulty walking. Autism is hidden from the eye and this seems to have broken our disability mold. As a society we've mistakenly made the assumption that disabilities can be seen. The results and effects of autism are not logically deduced, they are learned through education. I could spend all day explaining possible difficulties associated with autism, but I don't think you need to be an expert in this field in order to not judge a child and their family. When you seek to understand, research and ask questions, you will learn why these children struggle in different situations. 

If you began to perceive the child that is having a meltdown in the grocery store as you would with someone in a wheelchair struggling to get up an icy ramp, you wouldn’t say anything to that parent, except “how can I help”.  It’s easy to look at an icy ramp and understand, not so easy to see into the child’s mind, identify his neurological differences and understand what triggered his/her behaviour in that moment. 

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It’s easy to look at an icy ramp and understand, not so easy to see into the child’s mind and understand what triggered his behaviour."

Too many parents have literally given up their jobs, lost friends and family members over judgement and feeling like they cannot take their kids into public places. The  judgments and the glares need to stop. Children with autism are going to struggle in public from time to time, but its repetition of these experiences that creates new coping skills and eventually success. If parents stop bringing their children into the community in fear of what someone might say, their children will never overcome that obstacle.We need to support these parents without judgement. These families are giving their 100% to their child, as are you.

The point here is to recognize that maybe you don’t understand what’s going on. When that lightbulb turns on the judgment will turn off.

Here is my life tip that will help in almost all circumstances from understanding autism to relationships; Always seek to understand, never assume.


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