Should I tell them my son is autistic?
That’s a question I have asked myself at times, usually just after he has done something a little, shall we say, out the ordinary.
Will telling them explain the behaviour? They’re strangers, does it matter what they think? What are the negatives, what message does it send to my son if I trot out ‘sorry, he is autistic’.
I have a pretty firm stance now, but when I started out on this autism parenting journey it was harder. That’s how all parenting works – nobody’s perfect, you do your best, you make mistakes. You reflect and think how you could have done things a bit better, but you don’t beat yourself up about it.
Of course some people need to know – doctors, teachers, the babysitter (not to suggest that we get out much!) – but what of those random encounters?
Here’s what can go through your head in answering that question – should I tell people my child is autistic.
Autism And Speaking Your Mind
Let’s start with an example.
We were at reception as I paid for the quiet swimming session, a man walked out the other way having finished his gym workout.
‘Are you a man or a woman?’ asked my son to this man – definitely a man, he, like most men nowadays, had a big bushy beard. He didn’t look feminine at all, shortish hair, decent Adam’s apple, poor finger nail maintenance.
My son knew he was a man, of that I have no doubt, but for some reason something made him ask the question.
The man paused. Let’s do the same, let’s pause.
He’s going to react, hopefully not overly annoyed but a bit put out or surprised at least. My son will, inevitably, just repeat the question or point out whatever womanly trait the man has, I may or may not need to step in.
One option would be to say ‘sorry, my son is autistic, he has a habit of just saying whatever is in his head’.
That would probably end the incident right there, the guy would turn round, walk out, I’d say ‘come on, let’s go’ and we’d go and get changed for swimming. It might seem the path of least resistance.
As well as quickly explaining the unusual question, the other advantage of stepping in quickly is to stop the man from feeling embarrassed – maybe not such a huge issue here, he didn’t look at all feminine, he’d probably just think the question was a bit weird.
If it was to another child though, or the comment related to someone’s weight it might feel right to in some way say something that reduced the impact of a comment that could be wounding. (I would of course, use this as an opportunity to remind my son about the need to be nice to people and that commenting on appearance can be upsetting).
Autism – Short term v Long Term
Saying my son is autistic might help in the very short term, but there are concerns the other way.
Why would I be saying it, is it to apologise for him when all he is being is inquisitive, just in an unsubtle way?
In mentioning the autism am I suggesting that because he is autistic he cannot be expected to behave or that the man should expect lower standards from my son?
More importantly, what is it saying to my son – you are autistic, that’s why I think you got it wrong. Try not to talk to people.
I’m not going to lie, there used to be times when, in the moment, it was tempting to say ‘sorry, my son is autistic.
With experience I now believe it’s wrong to point out the autism unless it is really necessary. If he upset a child, I would apologise – not for the autism but perhaps to say sorry, my son always says what comes into his head, he didn’t mean it.
I would try to tread the fine line with my son that is trying to teach him to be a bit more subtle, or what areas to avoid, but equally not damaging his confidence – if an autistic child thinks they always get it wrong when trying to talk to people, when they are just trying to be friendly, then they’ll stop trying to interact.
The best approach is to take a second, to be like a calm centre back and avoid diving in, see what happens next – after all, the incident has already happened. There might be a need to say something, there might not.
Pause – See What Happens
In this case, my son was trying to interact with the man, albeit with an unusual conversation starter. Why not see if a conversation ensues, diving in to quickly end the situation sends an unsaid message that ‘you tried to interact, you got it wrong, that’s why we’re now walking away’.
Let’s go back and unpause with the man turning round having been asked if he’s male or female.
‘Are you a man or a woman? You look a bit like a woman.’
‘I’m a man. Are you a boy or a girl. You’ve got eyelashes that look a bit like a girl’s’.
‘I’m not a girl! I’m a boy! Why do you think I’m a girl?’
‘Well, why do you think I look like a woman. Not many women have beards. Does your mum have a beard?’
‘No! The woman in Greatest Showman has a beard so you could be a woman’.
‘Ha! OK, well I am a man. Enjoy your swim.’
And that was that. Maybe he guessed my son is autistic, maybe he didn’t. It doesn’t matter, no harm done, a nice chat, my son did well and the man got a funny story to tell his mates.
My son is autistic, but I’m not going to use that as a way to explain his actions – to do so risks giving him negative self-image.
Given the links between autism and depression, suicide even in later life avoiding that is more important than the blushes of a random person in a queue.