Pigeonholed People: Should We Be Saying “Autism Parents?”

Hello readers,

Words are powerful things, aren’t they? Almost every time I sit down to write a post in this blog, I’m reminded of that truth. In fact, I have an important post about words that I want to write–am convicted to write–but I don’t yet feel ready. So today, we’re going to look at the phenomenon of phrases like “autism parents,” “special needs parents,” and so on. This post is mostly about parents but can apply to other people, too.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon around Facebook and other social media, particularly sites that I like and support such as Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid, the Asperger Women’s Association, and others. Now again, these are great sites and I love the work they do. However, some of their memes are a little disturbing.

You’ve probably seen these memes and phrases. You know, the ones that say stuff like:

-All these parents are talking about honor rolls, ballet recitals, and sports, and autism parents are like, “Woo-hoo! My kid tried a new food and her socks didn’t bother her!”

(In reference to the recent Snowmageddon): A meme shows a woman muscling a huge jar of ketchup into a buggy. The caption reads, “Autism parents be like, ‘This’ll last a week.'”

-Various memes that say things like, “I’m a special needs parent/caregiver. What’s your superpower?”

-Stories put out by sites like The Mighty that feature “games” like “Meltdown Bingo.” These are meant to be a humorous look at autism and other disabilities, and the “behaviors” they sometimes lead to. However, as you probably know, the backlash is pretty intense, and in my humble opinion, it should be.

Again, I’m not one to police people. If your child has a disability and you want to call yourself a special needs parent, have at it. But I am concerned about what this language is telling society about disabilities, and the messages it sends to PWDs themselves, especially children. Let’s take a look at these messages, okay?

  • (Disability) parent sends the message that you are not raising and nurturing a child. You are raising and nurturing a disability or set of needs first, foremost, and sometimes only. This pigeonholes the child or teen so that he or she comes to believe, “My needs, disability, and differences = ME.”
  • (Special needs/disability) parent pigeonholes you as a person and a parent. It sends the message to other parents that you can’t do, feel, or relate to what others do. It sends the message that because your needs and experiences are different, you should be segregated as much as your child is. Inclusion is not best for you, your child, or anyone who cares for and loves you and your child.
  • This language tends to focus on the negative parts of having a disability like autism, CP, sensory processing disorder, whatever. Do those negative parts exist? Absolutely, but they are not worthy to be focused on. For example, every parent or guardian needs to vent, and that’s fine. It’s healthy. But if all you do is talk about your kid’s “meltdowns,” or how he or she won’t eat anything but these X five foods, you are telling yourself and your child, “My child and situation will never change.”
  • This language also perpetuates the idea that the frustrating parts of a disability or disorder are all your child’s fault. I’m going to leave that one here, because I don’t have to explain the damage that does.

For those of you who may be curious, I’m now going to address another question. What if you use this language, not to hurt anyone, but to be humorous and to give these parents a “break”, as it were? Again, I understand that, to an extent. That’s why The Mighty created that Meltdown Bingo post. But as much as I try to sympathize, I’m going to be blunt: you’re playing a dangerous game. Can disability be funny? Sure, sometimes. I poke fun at myself all the time. And if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’ll probably have a much more negative life. But disability and humor is tricky. Whether it works depends on what you’re laughing at and who is laughing with or at you. If the disability community is not laughing with you, you are crossing some important lines.

I’ll also be blunt with this element: Disability humor like Meltdown Bingo often only speaks to one side of the disability story. That is, it allows parents, guardians, caregivers, and the “experts” to express their frustrations and laugh at them–but what about the person with the disability? Why are we so focused on their caregivers’ experiences, while not asking them enough about theirs? When it comes to disability, whose experience matters more? Whose life is it? (Stay tuned for an upcoming post entitled, Whose Experience Is This, Anyway)?

So, to wrap this post up: Yes, sometimes life with a disability is hard. Humorous elements can be found there, for both PWDs and their parents/caregivers/friends. It’s okay to talk about those. However, we need to be careful about the words we use and who is laughing with us.

For more about this, see the December 2011 archives, the post entitled: Disability Humor: What Are We Really Laughing At?

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