A couple years ago, my son had a school holiday pageant. The kind of event I would loved to have leaned on my then boyfriend to help me through, but he was out of town on business. So, with younger child in tow, I went to see my eldest son perform. My child is a staunch atheist, and he usually skipped the winter gala in protest of what he felt was an egregious blurring of the separation of church and state, since a local mega church hosts the public school performance. This particular year, he had made peace with performing in a church, so my reprieve was over. I walked in, my autistic son anxious to be on time, as if I would be late. He found his place, and I was left to find a seat in the echo chamber cathedral. Inadvertently, I found myself sitting in the middle of all the parents of my son’s best school friends. The boy astutely saw this, and came over to make introductions. Then, an old friend saw me, waved, and promptly seated her family next to my son and me. Our younger sons are friends, so the small boy chatter began in ernest. I wanted to curl up in a fetal position and put my hands over my ears. It took all I had to not run out. I interrupted my boyfriend’s business dinner with a flurry of frantic texts, and he talked me off my invisible ledge.
That was the night I realized my son was higher functioning than me. I’m ashamed to admit that my response to this epiphany was all too human. I was embarrassed. After all, I’m the parent here, right? You know that awkward moment when someone insensitively says they would never know your kid has autism and they think that’s some kind of compliment? I don’t. No one has ever said that about my son. He is blatantly, unabashedly autistic, and that’s how I’ve raised him. The first time he came home and told me someone called him weird I asked him if anyone said he was mean, questioned his intelligence, or made him feel bad about himself. He said no, just weird. Well then, dear son, let your freak flag fly. The world needs a good deal more weird. We woo hoo’d and hollered and celebrated our weirdness until my other son asked us to hold it down so he could get some sleep. By morning, I was over my moment of vanity in which I needed to somehow feel superior to my own child. I was duly full of self chastisement, and no one knew of my momentary ego trip until now.
So what is “high functioning”? I think of it much like Potter Stewart described pornography:
I shall not today attempt further to define…and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…
—Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.
We know it when we see it, but the concept is a bear trap. I suspect some people will be upset with me for even acknowledging that the concept of high and low functioning has any validity. Others may take issue when I say that while I know it exists, I think it’s chiefly a yardstick of how comfortably one can navigate in a neurotypical setting. My son can easily initiate conversations, never loses speech, and has fewer sensory issues than me. I have all these issues, but for me, they are masked by stereotypes of female behavior. My scripting and inability to initiate or steer a conversation appears to most to be the behavior of a lady who is shy and deferential. When speech eludes me, I may appear cold or snobbish. When words blurt out sharply, I’m assumed to be ‘bitchy’. These perceptions are all deeply rooted in sexism, but I feel no shame in exploiting them to my own purposes. This is how I function.
I know many people who don’t know autism do not think of autistics as adults with families of their own. When it is mentioned, I bristle at the idea that I, or anyone else, is raising a family in spite of autism, so I thought I’d give a short, incomplete list of reasons why my autism makes me a better parent.
1. I have less expectations than non-autistics.
As a child, I never played with dolls, thought I’d get married, or imagined being a mommy. I didn’t raise children because having kids was what people are supposed to do when they grow up. I did it because I am needed, and parenting is one of the only things to ever come naturally to me. I have never thought ahead to my child’s first day of school, dance recital, football game, or prom. Although all three of my biological children were non verbal or semi verbal in their preschool years, I never felt the need to mourn the child I imagined I would have. I simply made note, got appropriate help when needed, and let them find their own pace.
2. I truly listen.
All the time to each and every word. In all honesty, I don’t have another option. That point where someone is rambling on and on and it all sounds like “blah, blah, blah”? Nope. I hear and process it all. When I can’t hear well enough to process, it makes me so overwhelmed, I have to stop my child and tell them I can’t listen right now, but I’ll come back to them in a few minutes. Anything else, to me, would be dishonest.
3. Gentle, constant honesty
I can’t lie, but that doesn’t mean I run around tactlessly blurting out truths in a hurtful way. My children sometimes don’t like what I have to say. If they have not put in a full effort, I call them on it, and if their actions are hurtful to someone, I let them know. However, my kids never doubt me. Promises are few and far between around here, but they do not get broken. When my children receive praise, it is genuine and not effusive.
4. Lack of embarrassment
The handful of times I’ve been embarrassed in my life, it has always been due to an intellectual slip up on my part. I have sympathy for the parent who is mortified when their child has a public meltdown, but on a personal level, I can’t wrap my head around it. Do I get dirty looks in the grocery store? Sure. I’ve had appalled neurotypical friends point it out to me, but I don’t notice and don’t care. I’m on my third child who has less than ideal public displays. I have been escorted out of retail establishments, yelled at by strangers, and had the police called on me several times all due to my children’s issues. Inconvenient, exhausting, and occasionally heartbreaking? Yes. Embarrassing? No. Therefore, how I handle these issues is not influenced by outside pressure. I handle each one based on that child’s needs, motivations and skill set.
5. Super hearing
Did that child really think they could get by with that without me knowing? Think again, dear one.
6. I don’t rely on my “executive functioning” or lack thereof.
I write things down. On bad days, the to do list includes items like “brush hair”. My calendar contains appointments set for things like renewing prescriptions and which day of the week my older son stays after school (even though it’s the same day every week). I actually remember everything, but everything is too much to keep prioritized. I don’t assume any task is too easy to screw up. When I do screw up, I work hard to forgive my imperfections. (I have a long way to go on that.)
7. Time management
Here is my autistic secret weapon. I have a near savant like sense of time. If you ask me to demonstrate or prove it, you will be met with a blank stare in which you should infer many four letter words are silently being thrown your way. I’m not a show pony or an autism novelty act. I don’t need clocks or watches to know what time it is or how much time has passed. I can accurately estimate the time any given task will take, and I am rarely wrong. In my head is a constant awareness of each second. I have to concentrate to not focus on it. I have no ‘I lost track of time’ moments, but they sound quite tranquil, and I’m envious of yours. Since this internal clock is my tool, I’m going to use it. If I’m late, there’s a good chance I had a meltdown. Yes, I still do that. No apologies, it comes with the territory, and I’m not supermom.