There are two types of problematic parents we’ve noticed: those that infantilise their children, incapable of seeing that their children are people and can self-advocate, and those parents who are hellbent on ‘normalising’ their children with ‘tough love’, which in its most extreme cases manifests in psychological and emotional abuse that leaves lasting scars. For some particularly bad parents, physical abuse is used as well.
We don’t have personal experience with family members who only use infantilisation, but we are far, far too familiar with tough ‘love’. I put love in quotation marks, because the behaviour was tough, but I don’t think it was very loving. Trying to humiliate someone having a meltdown isn’t loving. Shaming someone for being overloaded or struggling with certain scenarios is not loving. Becoming more critical and snappish once a nonautistic sibling comes along is not loving. It is abusive, and it’s reflective of the harmful ideas surrounding the autistic spectrum.
Because of our experiences, most of this article will be focussed on the harmful behaviour on the part of ‘tough love’ parents.
Their feelings of parental protectiveness are overlaid with resentment about their having an ‘abnormal’ child, one who may never fulfil any of the goals that parents associate with success. My child will never get a degree from Harvard or Oxford. My child will never become a doctor, lawyer or nuclear physicist. My child will never learn anything at all. Never, never, never. They’re so focussed on the possibilities of those ‘nevers’ that they work assiduously to stamp out the autism that they fallaciously view as ‘separate’ from their child’s existence. They want that typical child they’d been hoping and dreaming for, not the neurologically variant child who happens to be right in front of them. They see the child as a burden, a symbol of their failure to have a child that meets society’s expectations of what the perfect child should be, and they dread having to potentially look after the child for longer than the absolutely must. Things would be easier with a typical child, and these parents’ actions never let the child forget it. There is this undercurrent of being unwanted, of being flawed, in the child’s perception of the parent’s actions.
In order for these parents to get a ‘return on investment’, they subject their children to behaviour-modification techniques. This can be handling conspicuously autistic behaviour with traditional discipline like corporal punishment, revocation of privileges and aversives, rather than trying to understand the child’s behaviour and finding adaptations and services that allow them to make more sense of the world and have fewer negative reactions to it.
There’s often a problem when these parents see a particular atypical behaviour, and only see the behaviour, not the intention or stimuli that might motivate it. For instance, a parent who only looks at their child’s behaviour may interpret a meltdown as a deliberate attempt to make trouble, rather than a response to sensory or emotional overload. A ‘tough love’ parent may attempt to correct this external behaviour with traditional discipline, rather than trying to correct the situation, since they’re uninterested in the child’s interiority. Achieving success for this kind of parent is indistinguishability from a child’s nonautistic peers. It’s a superficial response to a deeper problem.
The problem with this childrearing style is that they’re not focussed on who their children actually are. They’re fixated on an Ideal Child, someone who their real child will never be. (This behaviour also exists with homophobic and transphobic parents, who refuse to see their queer children for who they are, and try to force them into a heteronormative or gender-conforming model ‘for their own sake’.)
People may write volumes and volumes about how we lack ‘theory of mind’, but this lack of reciprocity can go both ways. When parents kill their children because of their autism, it’s absolutely nonsensical to claim the lack of empathy only exists on our end. Most of these dysfunctional parent-child relationships don’t end up in the child’s death, but they can result in psychological abuse that leaves lasting damage to the child’s emotional health. When you’re constantly second guessing your self-worth and your abilities, that’s not a healthy place to be in. When your feelings are invalidated and people aren’t even trying to work out what’s wrong behind the visible behaviours, you might end up in an emotional state you’d rather not have.
Trying to correct who someone is isn’t the right way to go about things. Someone’s being autistic isn’t a crime. While being autistic does present adaptive problems, the more humane response is to accommodate and to teach a child healthy coping mechanisms that are person-centred, rather than trying to force someone to contort themselves to fit into a box labelled ‘Indistinguishable From Peers’.
In our case, we cut contact with our immediate biological family. Their tough ‘love’ was more damaging than simply letting us exist as who we were, and I think it turned out for the worst. Learning how to navigate the world comfortably involved years of trying to undo what they had done, and it’s still continuing today, even though things are easier for us than they were even three or four years ago. For people on the spectrum, not having that family support means that they are being deprived of access to services and help that most people are fortunate enough to have. It’s meant we’ve had to scramble to find resources and support. We have been able to, but it took several years.
While I believe the vast majority of autism parents are well intentioned, sometimes things go wrong, and people erroneously conflate being nonautistic with being a more valuable member of society. Sometimes, when those stereotypes are internalised too much, and are combined with a parent’s own negative personality traits, that can result in behaviour that is ultimately destructive to the autistic child’s psyche–or worse, their very existence.