Contrary to the view of certain charities and many ignorant ‘celebrities’, there is no epidemic of autism. There are many things that upset me about the focus on children with autism, but the main thing is that it wipes the rest of us, hundreds of thousands of us, out of the picture.
(No, I’m not using a quote from Autism Speaks, because then I’d be obliged to provide a link, and that would make me physically sick.)
(I rather like the name Autism would speak if narcissistic personality disorder would just shut the fuck up for a while – if anyone remembers where that came from, please let me know.)
So where are all these auties? How did they get through childhood so painlessly?
When I was about ten I found a pile of Reader’s Digests in the cottage we rented for our summer holiday. And in one of them was a story called For the Love of Ann. I was fascinated by this story, and only now can I grasp that it was because I understood Ann, her fears, her reactions. And I knew Ann’s father was going about things the right way, because he decided to hit her whenever she did something ‘wrong’. And this was what my parents did.
It is one of the unspoken secrets of autism that beating your child will, in many cases, control many of the autistic behaviours. Before everyone starts screeching, I am not in any way advocating it. But it is undeniably true. As long as a child has the capacity to link the pain to the behaviour, fear will set some controls. There is a place in the US where austistic teens and adults wear belts that deliver electric shocks whenever they do something ‘wrong’. For most of them this succeeds in stopping the ‘wrong’ behaviours. The cost to the individual being tortured does not seem to be part of the equation.
If you’re in your middle thirties or above, then you came from the generations where smacking* was a perfectly acceptable way to control your child. And we were smacked. Oh boy, were we smacked. My most vivid memories of this were crying and telling whichever of my parents had just hit me that I didn’t understand what I did wrong. This simply earned me more punishment for being ‘cheeky’. I hated being hit, but I hated more the way my parents turned ugly. I couldn’t trust them. I had no idea when they would be angry with me. And so I spent my childhood trying to keep a lid on my fear of them.
In this situation a child can end up with a strange version of Stockholm syndrome – you have to like your parents, and believe they care, because if you don’t, the alternative is far worse. But the mental gymnastics involved are an enormous strain.
I confined my autistic behaviours to my bedroom. When I felt a meltdown coming on I would run there and bang my head against the wall, crying. I would sit in the bottom of my wardrobe. I would sit on my bed and rock.
I knew these behaviours were bad, and not for public view. Strangely, I have no memory of being directly punished for them, but I know my anxiety over my parent’s reactions, my fear of them, goes a long way back, certainly to the age of three, and likely earlier. In our house, anger was bad, or at least my anger was. If I got angry or upset I had by definition, lost the right to a valid point of view. That this wasn’t the case for my parents was another form of cognitive dissonance that I shut away in a box marked Dangerous – not to be thought about.
So yes, I learned self-control. I learned not to do ‘weird’ things. I learned that the weird things I couldn’t control were only to be revealed in private.
And that worked, for those things. I was, superficially, a nice, well-behaved NT.
Except I still couldn’t do normal things, like make friends with normal people. I could sustain it for a while, but eventually it would all fall apart for reasons I never understood. I got overstimulated easily, and needed to retreat for long periods. I was hyper-anxious, though I knew to hide it from everyone. My career stalled again, and again, and again, for reasons I couldn’t grasp. I kept moving on, spending no more than a couple of years in any one place, because that was how long it took until the weirdness became uncontrollable.
So at the end of this ramble, I’m not sure what my conclusions are, or at least, the ones I have are contradictory.
- Hitting anyone is bad.
- Hitting (and yelling) can control autistic behaviours in some children.
- Being forced to constant self-control is exhausting and distressing for an autistic child, who has no one to turn to.
- Controlling autistic behaviours can allow an autist to fit into society, hold down a job, live independently.
- The cost of that control is borne entirely by the autistic person, and it can destroy much of who they are.
I do think one other conclusion is that it’s much easier to control an autistic girl this way. There is huge cultural pressure on girls and women to conform, and autistic behaviours are much less acceptable in a girl. This is why I’m still not convinced about the 4:1 ratio. I think there are many, many more of us out here, but we’ve become spectacularly good at hiding.
* You’ll note that when a child is hit, we call it smacking. When a woman is hit, we call it slapping. But when a man is hit, that’s hitting, or punching, or beating him up. Because what happens to men is serious, and must be taken seriously. /feminist snark.