Should we be teaching autistic children to behave in a neurotypical way? Is it even possible to condition someone on the autism spectrum to behave neurotypically? These are two questions that are bought up time and time again during autism training. Since I have autism myself, I thought I’d have a go at answering them.
Autism is not a learning disability. In some ways, this makes it more disabling and harder to bear than disabilities that do affect a person’s intelligence and by extension their self-awareness. I know I’m different. I know people stare at me when I rock backwards and forwards, flap my hands or put my fingers in my ears. I know that people gossip about me and think I am a stupid, selfish bitch when I fail to understand a simple social convention. I know all this, but I can’t change any of it. If I make a conscious decision not to rock or flap, it takes up all of my concentration and after a few minutes I feel like my brain is about to explode. I’ve made some progress with socialising with a combination of drama classes and cognitive behavioural therapy. But I’m still autistic, and I’d be lying if I said I approached socialising in the same way as a neurotypical.
Some practitioners believe that children with Kanner’s (or high support) autism have little self-awareness, and might not realise that others perceive them as unusual. This has been challenged by autism advocates such as Cary Fleishman, who was perceived retarded by many therapists, simply because she was non-verbal and her autistic tics were very noticeable. When Carly found a way to communicate, these so called experts realized she was a highly intelligent, self-aware young woman. Her diagnosis as ‘moderately retarded’ arose from the misconception that if a person cannot talk, they have nothing to say.
Children with Kanner’s autism do have self-awareness. Not as much as kids with high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome perhaps, but enough to know they’re different. The further you go up the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, the higher the rate of depression, self-harm and suicide. I was shocked when I first read these statistics. I was diagnosed with depression when I was a teenager, and struggled to break my addiction to cutting for several years. But I’d always viewed my mental health issues as separate from my Asperger’s. Now it seems the two are intertwined. I’m starting to wonder if the term ‘high functioning’ shouldn’t be used at all, because at times I am no more high functioning than someone with severe classical/Kanner’s autism- I just have a different set of challenges.
The main challenge is knowing that others perceive me as strange and feeling powerless to change it. On the surface this might not seem like such a big problem. But it affects every child with autism to a certain extent. It can lead to bullying, low self-esteem, depression, self -harm and suicide. From this point of view; teaching autistic kids to behave like neurotypicals seems wonderful. In theory, it would allow them to fit in with their peers and stop perceiving themselves as different. In practice, it doesn’t quite work like that.
I come from a liberal, accepting family. My parents rarely talked about my diagnosis during my childhood, so I didn’t perceive myself as different until I started school, where I received extra support outside of lessons. This support wasn’t always geared towards my autism, but nonetheless it got me thinking about why I was different from the other kids. If you teach a child to behave in a way that is perceived as normal, they’ll start thinking their original behaviour was abnormal or just plain wrong. This kind of thinking can result in low self-esteem, depression, self-harm and suicide… and we’re back to where we started!
Of course, all of this is assuming that we can teach autistic kids to behave like neurotypicals. What if we can’t? I do my best to “hold in” all of my autistic tics, but to be honest; it can be like holding a bladder full of urine. We’ve all done it… maybe you’re in an important meeting that you can’t leave, in a traffic jam thirty miles away from the nearest service station or just watching a really good film at the cinema. You tell yourself if you cross your legs you’ll be fine. But soon you start to feel intense discomfort and the only thing you can think about is how badly you need to go. It’s going to come out soon. You just pray that when it does you’ll be somewhere private with no one watching or listening. It’s exactly the same with autistic behaviour.
You can teach autistic kids that it’s unacceptable to rock, flap, scream, put their fingers in their ears or stim in public. You can teach autistic kids to smile, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and look you in the eye when they are speaking to you. This might help them feel normal for a couple of hours. But you can’t rewire the connections in their neural pathways. Eventually the autism will surface again. Lots of parents use the word ‘explodes’ when they talk about how their child’s autism manifests itself after school. These poor kids are repressing their natural behaviour all day, desperately trying to fit in with neurotypical classmates and teachers. When they get home, they have to stop repressing, and the autistic behaviour becomes far more prominent than it ought to be. This scenario suggests teaching autistic kids to behave neurotypically can be damaging and lead to severe melt downs.
It seems like we are left with an uncomfortable choice: teach autistic kids to behave in a neurotypical manner and make them extremely uncomfortable, or allow them to be themselves and risk low self-esteem, social isolation and mental health issues?
Perhaps neither is the right option. Perhaps, instead of viewing people with autism as the “problem” we should be teaching neurotypicals to be more patient, tolerant and understanding. In a perfect world that’s exactly what I would suggest. But no such world exists. Don’t get me wrong- I’m all for autism awareness. I’m encouraging friends, family, partners and employers to be as tolerant of my disability as they possibly can. I’m also using this very blog to raise awareness and confront stereotypes. But I’m not an idiot. I know one blog isn’t going to change the world’s attitude overnight. I know that there will always be people who are prejudiced and intolerant towards autism. There will always be people that bully anyone who’s different and make them see that difference as a curse.
So what’s my final answer? Should we be teaching autistic children to behave in a neurotypical way? Or should we let them be themselves and focus on altering society’s attitude towards autism? I think the best approach is a mixture of the two. Encourage your child to behave in a way that’s socially acceptable, but don’t expect them to repress every aspect of their autistic behaviour. This cannot be done for long, and often results in exhaustion or meltdowns. Encourage tolerance and understanding in others. But above all, keep reminding everyone that ‘autistic’ means ‘different’, not ‘strange’, not ‘weird’, not ‘wrong’, not ‘unacceptable’ and not ‘less’.