Separating Autism from the Child

I recently read a blog post from a discouraged mother that discussed separating autism from the individual. The argument is thus: autistic individuals who are grown cannot separate themselves from autism, it is part of who they are. If we label autism as bad or undesirable, or in need of curing, we are labeling our child as the same since autism is part of them. There are many fallacies to this argument, and I would like to discuss some of that here.

First, while autistic individuals cannot separate themselves and their experiences from autism and look objectively at what is caused by autism and what is just them, it does not follow that labeling autism as “bad” and looking for cures is labeling them as bad. I cannot separate myself from the medical disorders I struggle with, and I would definitely label them as bad and in need of curing. That does not make me bad. Some of what I deal with is depression and anxiety. In a way it is behavioral and inherent to my thought processes and functioning, like autism is. I would still label depression and anxiety as bad and in need of fixing without ever feeling like I was bad. I would still like to be fixed though.

Autistic children can be extremely challenging. My son rages. His anger is mild compared to many, but to me it is enough. After such episodes I go to my room, shut the door and cry hard. I would do a lot to spare him from such grief and anger. The worst part is afterwards when he recognizes the behavior and feels guilt and remorse for something that he cannot control. In younger children, or less functional children, this can be especially difficult. In this instance, I would encourage and even promote separating the disorder of autism from the individual.

I work with a lot of kids, have a degree in Psychology, and am working towards a Doctorate in Child Psychology. When a child acts out, is difficult, cruel, defiant, angry, or violent there is usually an external or internal cause. This cause is generally outside of the child’s control, and by separating the behavior from the individual, you can work on the behavior, forgive, punish, or ignore the behavior while still showing love and respect for the individual. In fact, it is essential and taught to psychologists that we must separate the individual from the behavior. As foster parents we were taught to do the same. The reasoning is that if you cannot separate the behavior from the individual, then the behavior becomes something they did purposely and that belief will lead to anger and even abuse.

I would even go so far as to suggest, and teach my son and the kids that I work with to do the same. They are not “bad”, “evil”, “unlovable”, “unwanted”, or anything negative. Their behavior isn’t desirable or great to deal with, but it is just behavior. They are important and wonderful, smart, and amazing individuals dealing with things that most cannot begin to comprehend. As parents, we should also separate our behaviors from our definition of ourselves. Yes, our personality, thoughts and such lead to behavior, but inherently we are not always what we do. We all make mistakes, lash out, screw up, and generally have bad days.

Those things should never define us. My son has autism, is autistic, but is not defined by that or any of the other disorders that he struggles with. There are behaviors and things that are a result of his disorders, but they are not him. I am successful with difficult children and love and passionately enjoy working with them because I can separate the behaviors from the individual. I do it with everyone, and with myself. Yes, the behaviors need to be addressed, but that does not alter their value as a human being, and it does not ever alter my view of them.

Photo: Cuddle Bug Kids/Flickr