As a self-aware Autistic parent to an Autistic child, we have been so attuned to each other since the day she was born. But— I notice that the instincts of non-autistic family members failed them with my child no matter how hard they tried or how much they loved her.
They didn’t know how to read her and would make things worse– on accident. Much of this same dynamic played out with my parents and grandparents. My mom did not understand me at the level of instinct, and no matter how much we loved each other, we were forever at odds. I was perceived as difficult, defiant, and lazy.
But my favorite thing in the world was to be with my maternal grandparents. All I wanted to do was do work with my grandfather. I didn’t care much, at all, about vacations or material objects or toys or playgrounds. Given the choice, I would have spent time with him over same-age peers.
I just wanted to be his sidekick and do the work he did, and he loved that. I accompanied him to his actual job and performed very adult tasks with him, like testing the water at the water plant every day for purity and making sure everything was operating as it should.
Everyone else was terrified of him, and that’s a little bit funny, but I found him to be so warm and affectionate. He only lived two houses away, and I spent every possible minute I could eke out with him.
Now, it’s a little bit funny that many people find me terrifying, but my child thinks I— and her autistic dad— are the warmest and most loving people ever. Our instincts are not at odds.
Autism is NOT a series of deficits. It’s a different identity with different values and different instincts.
Regardless of anyone else’s definitions, autism is not a series of medical conditions, even though those things occur among us more frequently. It’s not what happens after a bout of meningitis. It’s not epigenetic.
Sensory differences are only incidental and not what autism is.
Autism is not an umbrella term for genetic conditions. It’s not meltdowns. It’s not introversion.
For more information, check these out:
Autism Speaks Accidentally Gets It Right
Autism Speaks is an organization that most autistic people hate. In fact, it’s regarded as a hate group by many in our community.
I mean, I hate it, too. They really need to publicly apologize for all the harm they cause and have caused, then spend the rest of their time making reparations. I’ll link more information about why at the bottom of this article.
Apparently, Autism Speaks is now running prime-time ads about a free autism screening tool for toddlers. I’ll link that below, too.
And they accidentally proved that we aren’t broken or lagging with skills, we just have different instincts.
A few days ago, I Tweeted this:
We were born that way!
In many of my friendships with Autistic people, we are on a parallel journey to know ourselves as individuals and to know ourselves as members of a community.
When I realized that we more instinctively looking for processing in others as opposed to looking for social and emotional communication, that’s me having done A LOT of work to get in touch with my autistic nature.
And, I’m a parent of an autistic who gets to experience this in real time. So, as an activist and autistic nonprofit founder, and as a parent and spouse of an autistic, I can really get a great sampling of autistic ways of being in my life.
This particular epiphany hit me in a meeting that I recently had with our board chair, our chief communication officer, and some people in leadership roles from another organization that works with children with disabilities.
I felt myself so instantly and viscerally attracted to their director— not in a romantic sense, but in that “like recognize like” sense. She said something about how the more she spent time around neurodivergent children, the more she became neurodivergent.
Now, if a neurotypical person would have said that it would have been appropriating neurodivergence. But I knew exactly what she meant. She was getting to know her authentic self and her instincts told her she didn’t have to be performative or worry about saying the wrong thing to us. She was with her people.
After the meeting, I kept trying to analyze what it was that made me feel so drawn to her. I kept rewinding and replaying the memory (that’s an autistic thing), and those parts that are significant usually “glow” in my internal video footage. My cognitive journey went something like this:
It was her face.
It was her facial expressions.
But what about them?
It was her eyes.
But what about them? I had my camera off… this is not some metacognitive eye contact rumination.
I keep seeing captioning of words that weren’t spoken, but I read them in her face: a plan for a future she would manifest. A vision she saw but had not yet put to words. Very Grand Emotions.
Then it hit me! Most people would have seen her wide-eyed staring into the distance as communication to “look over there.” I knew at the level of instinct what she was doing. She was rhapsodic and in her bliss, feeling hopeful about the future.
She was not communicating anything with those expressions. It was just her processing.
I was attracted to the largess of her Hope. Her Optimism. Her Very Grand Emotions.
That was it. It explained so much, and I started doing this thing autistic people do once they realize they’re more than just a broken neurotypical— I had to relive a thousand memories.
A few days later, I made that Tweet. But I struggled with how to give examples because every adult autistic has learned to do things that don’t gel with their instincts and to see their differences as deficits to overcome.
So no examples could be reliable for adults— my audience.
Then this morning I saw in our Facebook group a link to that screener. And Autism Speaks proved me right.
I’ll show you:
Questions from the screener
The instructions read:
The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised (M-CHAT-R) is a screener that will ask a series of 20 questions about your child’s behavior. It’s intended for toddlers between 16 and 30 months of age. The results will let you know if a further evaluation may be needed. You can use the results of the screener to discuss any concerns that you may have with your child’s healthcare provider.
Most of the 20 yes-or-no questions are about this instinct before kids learn to mask. A few are about incidental sensory issues like sensitivity to sound.
Again, here’s the theory:
And here’s question 1 of Autism Speaks’s screener:
Right! An autistic kid does not instinctually feel other people’s behaviors are communication. So they’re not thinking you’re pointing to ask them to look, at least not initially. They will learn that eventually. To them, it’s like stimming. It’s a way you’re processing.
Right! Because before your child has language, they don’t regard your words as communication but as a reflection of your processing.
Right! Until an autistic child figures out that you’re communicating with words and not just processing, they might not appear as engaged with the outside world. Autistic-coded characters on shows and apps probably connect them faster to language acquisition.
Again, their instinct is not that pointing is communication. That’s why they don’t look.
Of course they don’t point. They will drag you to the thing they want you to interact with because your body, and its movements, belongs to them in their instincts.
Until the child realizes that all those behaviors are communication and not just manifestations of processing, they probably think that much of what other kids are doing is just the same as stimming. It’s not for them.
Right! They are not showing you things initially because they are not thinking yet of those behaviors as social communication. That’s why the caveat, not to get help, but just to share. That’s because they don’t realize the pragmatic value of pointing yet.
Autistic kids do have other forms of social communication, but non-autistic parents don’t know how to read them. That’s for another article, though.
Autistic kids don’t realize their name is their name until they’ve realized your communication structure and names and pronouns are all expressions of social relatedness, ownership, and hierarchy and not for labels and their functions. They will get there, but that is less natural to them.
That’s why a giant percentage of autistic people rename themselves in adulthood, struggle with pronouns in childhood, or have nicknames for people that in some way provide context rather than being a meaningless word (to them).
I legit have no idea, at age 41, why I’m supposed to smile at someone who smiles at me. That’s their expression, not mine. If I do smile— and I usually do— it’s just performative unless I’ve been inspired to smile. Otherwise, it’s just an expression of someone else’s processing and is not a social cue to me.
Right. Of course not. They’re not trying to read your visual processing behaviors. It’s not for them. It’s for you.
They won’t! Why would they try to process the same way as you? It would be meaningless to them.
Again, to them, you’re not communicating. You’re processing. What’s in your brain is more important than what your eyes are seeing.
Why would they? You can’t tell from their behaviors what is happening with their processing. Why would someone want praise for visual processing?
I suspect that just now, at this moment, many autistic people have figured out on a very deep level why they hate ABA therapy so much. It’s often based on neurotypical instincts about behavior as social communication.
Not at first, no. They are not seeing you as in a position of authority. You’re a more knowledgeable instructor to their instincts and values. If you’re not labeling items, then they’re not yet understanding the neurotypical social part of communication yet.
They’re not seeing their role as subordinate to your authority. They likely never will, though they may learn to perform as if they do.
No. They don’t know how you process. They are wired to have the instincts that people all process differently. All autistic people do process differently, so their communication differences are a reflection of that.
Your expressions are unique to your mind. They might even look away and feel your expressions are private, like looking at your brain. They may hate when you look at them, especially when they’re upset.
Again, some questions aren’t screening for autism but are looking at sensory differences that are incidental and not related to being autistic. They’re just more common to us because each autistic brain is unique.
This is a question about seeking proprioceptive feedback– getting that push and pull pressure on their joints.
This question is about whether or not your child is seeking vestibular input– that sense of balance that begins in the inner ear.
Autistic kids do this if they’re looking for visual input.
This is simply a sound sensitivity question.
This is to see if your child has the muscle tone and motor coordination to walk.
I scored my child according to where she was at around 24 months of age. Here’s what we got:
I know that the two questions she didn’t match were related to her being sensory seeking whereas many autistic kids are avoidant.
But this response gives me unadulterated sadness and anger. She isn’t socially lacking. She doesn’t need intervention. She’s happy, well-adjusted, firmly attached, and doing great. She doesn’t need intervention.
She might need sensory accommodations. I’m wired to identify those and accommodate for them, and I have the collective knowledge of the Autistic community to help me be better at that.
I sure as hell don’t want or need Autism Speaks to give me parenting advice. In fact, my wiring sees this as socially coercive ownership.
I don’t have the language to express how angry this makes me. Because this is my child, fully autistic, and I have no problems with any aspect of her.
My grandfather would’ve never noticed or cared that Autism Speaks existed. But also, anyone who knew him would have never implied something was wrong with me.
And that made all the difference. That was life-saving. Because so much of my life outside that insulated warmth was a refrain of, “What is wrong with you?”
I’m not sorry. I said what I said.
Most of my long-term friends are dead. It’s what happens when the whole world tells you your instincts are wrong and think that your brain is for them. It’s not.
For the love of all that’s decent, don’t exacerbate that with conversion therapy. Don’t try to override their instincts in their most formative years. Help them to know their instincts and meet their relational needs.
I call this the Tyranny of Sameness.
Autism is a difference in how we perceive ourselves as a part of the broader world, and it’s highly specific.
We don’t instinctually see behaviors as communication because behaviors depend on processing. We are wired to intuit and accept differences.
Non-autistics are often wired to intuit and reject differences.
I recently delivered a conference with my friend, Kate Jones. She does most of the illustrations for NeuroClastic and a lot of work behind the scenes. The audience was mental health professionals.
More than the content of our presentation, people were most impressed by our friendship and rapport. We are finally in a place to know ourselves.
They saw how different we were, but how deep our bond was. We weren’t socially deficient. We were different from them— or the same, and they wanted that authenticity for themselves.
Below is a conversation I had recently with Kate. For reference, she’s Deaf. We were listening to a podcast we had done some months prior.
Kate’s movements weren’t communication. They weren’t for others. They were expressions of processing years of being oppressed for speaking honestly, for oralism, for being “indistinguishable from peers.”
Non-autistic empathy would never have been able to interpret what that meant.
The M-CHAT-R proved that we have different, but consistent, instincts with their screening questionnaire. They accurately identified autism.
Then they did what they said they don’t do by telling parents of toddlers, “This means you should take your child to his or her doctor for a full evaluation. You should also begin early intervention services for your child.”
They are speaking to non-autistic parents. “Hurry, convert them to knowing their place on the bottom rung of a power dynamic before it’s too late!”
There were no questions about meltdowns. No questions about emotions. No questions about medical issues. No questions about suffering. Just a few sensory questions and questions about normal autistic development.
This was all just Autism Speaks’s way to prove that social differences need to be normalized and autistic people need conversion therapy.
And I am telling you that there’s almost a zero percent chance that your kids are going to be grateful as adults for enrolling them in interventions. They’re just not. This is why we have a 9x higher rate of suicide. Higher rates of addiction. Our normal, harmless, healthy development is pathologized from the time we’re toddlers.
Listen to autistic adults active in their community. They’re on to something. They don’t all have your kids’ same sensory profiles or medical issues, but they’ll help you connect with your child in a way that encourages you to know your child and how to bond with them.
They have grown up in a world that has never served them, that has told them how people are without even acknowledging that they mean the majority.
We will never be happy until we know ourselves. We will never know ourselves if we’re following your instruction manual.
It’s not too different from telling a cat it’s a broken dog and getting angry at it when it rejects your leash or doesn’t perform your tricks.
Autistic adults can help you to interpret your autistic child’s language and communicate in a way that doesn’t depend on your sovereignty as an authority in a social hierarchy. They aren’t just like your child, but they’re closer having instincts that are similar to your child’s.
You can absolutely live in sync with your child when you stop working against their neurology and start working with it.
Autism Speaks M-CHAT-R Screening Tool
Do you need to put your autistic toddler in therapy?
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