Someone on social media decided to post a question. They asked if it was better to make an autistic child comfortable than to challenge them. The inquirer followed by saying this was a point of heavy debate in the autism community and someone had advised them that it was better to make their child comfortable implying that parent posting the question didn't agree with the idea of comfort over challenge.
The entire question was wrong because it was founded on the idea that normalization of an autistic child, by any means necessary, is the right ultimate goal when curing them is not possible. This ignores the reality that autism is a disability that requires, by law, just as much adaptation, accommodation, inclusion, and support as any physical disability would.
Autism is a lifelong disability. Autism is not "curable" by ABA. Enforced behavioral modification simply masks the outward expression of autistic behavior but can cause residual harm that presents in post-traumatic psychiatric disability. Parents often believe that the surfacing of mental health concerns in their autistic children expressed in anxiety disorders and PTSD are caused by autism when in fact they are part and parcel of a lifetime of no accommodation for their offspring's disability, traumatic enforcement of normalization in the guise of parental and professional "challenge over comfort" attitudinal ableism and treatment-related stressors accumulating over time.
Back to the question. Is it better to make an autistic child comfortable or challenge them?
What the hell does that mean?
Where daily life, care of self, care of the personal environment, and overcoming bars to access and disparities in everything from health services to educational equity are challenges which already exist for nonspeaking autistic youth, creating the "making them comfortable v challenging them" question as some adversarial issue dividing the autism community skews the autism conversation away from the true question.
|Mu, in a gray t-shirt and gray shorts, Hispanic presenting|
male with curly black hair and light brown skin uses
his AAC device, an iPad with TouchChat HD,
while sitting on our deck. ©Kerima Cevik
When parents set incorrectly high expectations and later find they can't normalize their offspring to their satisfaction they begin a cycle of frustration based abuse that ends in tragedy. Autistic disability rights activists discuss their own lifelong traumatic treatment experiences in the hope of sparing today's autistic children the long term damage they must live with because of these attempts to normalize them instead of providing the accommodations and supports needed to improve autonomy. If autistic parents were told their child had a physical disability that required they use assistive technology equipment like a wheelchair or cane, they would not then feel they must challenge their children to move through their environment without a wheelchair or cane. They would instead fight for the best equipment available for their offspring. Fundamental to the rift in the understanding of what autism accommodation, services, assistive tech, and inclusion should look like is this incorrect concept that autistic children must be forced to adapt to everything. This pressure increases the more a child can pass for what is viewed as normal. It increases if a child who might be able to communicate at a much higher level with an assistive technology device can produce single or two-word utterances. The goal with any other nonspeaking population is communication through AAC. With autistic nonspeakers, it is forcing two-word utterances and declaring their incompetence.
It is important not to conflate challenging a child after accommodation for a disability and forcing a child to a parent's view of what a normal person looks like. Forcing normalization is a clear sign that parent does not understand the scope of what encompasses autism as a disability and that is dangerous. Acceptance of disability is not lip service during Autism month where we can say we accept our children while compartmentalizing away the reality that they are disabled. It is critical to grasp that we are parenting disabled people. It is imperative that we be certain our children who can pass for typical are assessed for auditory, sensory, and cognitive processing disorders often missed in diagnosis because the child presents as "high functioning. It is critical to push for assessments that do not exist right now that can measure the same auditory, sensory, and cognitive processing disorders in nonspeaking autistic children and adults. Not knowing if a nonspeaking person processes what is said to them in a typical way is a major bar to any treatment, therapeutic support or communication support they need as disabled clients.
This is not a question of "comfort v challenge." It is a question of supporting decision making, educating your children about the scope of their disability and how to keep their mental health intact by using accommodations and assistive technology to support their processing and navigating a world not built for them. It means allowing coping strategies to remain in place as long as they aren't self-injurious. It means actively seeking humane solutions to self-injurious behavior. It means when aggression occurs, understanding whether the culprit is something like your offspring being in that eight percent of epilepsy patients reacting to their medications with so-called Keppra raging. One diligent autism mom tracked her daughter's rages and realized over time that the culprit was environmental and in fact an additive in McDonald;s fries. Once the culprit was discovered, the young woman was calm and happy.
Yet we parents are being taught that everything society considers wrong with our offspring is the fault of autism. More lives have been destroyed by this attitude than I can count.
This journey isn't about how embarrassed parents might feel that our children are disabled. It isn't about how things look to others. It is about preparing our disabled children to survive and navigate our world with as little stress and as much independence as possible. It is also about teaching them that society is also interdependent, and it is perfectly natural to need help and supports to safely navigate their lives.
Let us begin by understanding our own offspring as much as we are able. Let us realize everything we try to do with them on the excuse we are doing something for their own good has consequences.
Let us get our own headspace together so we can mentor confident, happy, autistic adults who know they are disabled and are fine with who they are.