Today a friend I knew when I was in grad school made a post on facebook during a trip to the local fair asking something along the lines of “is it normal for 5 and 6 year olds to have pacifiers and ride in strollers now?” This friend has always had a penchant for the sarcastic and lives in a heavily hispanic area despite being a white man, so it was quite obvious that his comment was saying, “Latinos, you need to get your kids up and walking and not give them pacifiers.”
My children are Latino. My 4 year old rides in a stroller when we go to theme parks for safety reasons.
I decided not to play into the racism of the comment and instead mentioned that many children are special needs and require sensory stimulation in crowds and need to be in strollers for their own safety or they may simply be disabled. A friend of his responded, “Their kids will end up gap toothed and having weak legs.”
The conversation moved towards “well, there must have been a lot of kids with autism there!” My response, “1:42 boys have it. My son is autistic. So was Thomas Jefferson.” To which gap-tooth-weak-leg woman said, I kid you not, that *I* was being ableist for calling my child autistic.
I have heard the idea of “autistic” being ableist before. I have heard the arguments of it not defining the child. I have heard them and as a mother of a child with this disability and as a linguist, I wholeheartedly disagree. I respect the desire of people who want to be referred to as “having autism” and will always follow their leads (or that of the parent in the case of young children), but I will not be told by the mother of neurotypical children how I should refer to my child who is on the spectrum. Take a seat. Pull out your suitcase. Unpack for a minute. I know I had to before writing this post.
If given a choice of terms, I would say my son does not have autism. To me, you have diseases. He didn’t acquire autism when someone sneezed on him. When he was born, he was hard of hearing. He was not “without hearing.” We don’t change the morphology of any other disability-related word to make it less “defining.” Why are we afraid to define our children or, in adult situations, ourselves, as autistic? Why can’t we embrace it as a trait rather than an affliction to be “had”?
My son was born with autism. It may not be in his DNA as far as the geneticist can see, but his tendencies were visible soon after birth. Autism is part of him. He doesn’t have it any more than he has latino heritage or white skin. He is latino. He is white. He is autistic. No, it doesn’t define him, but it certainly makes up a large part of his world view and to take that away from him and isolate it as a sort of illness is offensive to me as his mother. Also, I feel like saying he “has autism” gives the false impression that it’s an issue to be cured. He doesn’t need curing. He may need therapy to help him navigate the world, but he certainly doesn’t need a “cure” for his autism. As a very staunch pro-science mother, I also feel this term plays a bit too much into the woo ideas of it being curable through pseudoscience.
I am certain that as Little Bear grows autism will be an important part of his identity. Every part of his identity deserves an adjective. He came to us with both a full head of hair, light skin, and autism. Calling him brown-haired, light skinned, and autistic are just naming three aspects of his being that make him my beautiful, special little man.
If he decides that he feels differently as he matures, I’ll change my way of referring to him, but for now, he is my autistic son Little Bear. If the person has any background in medicine, I may say he’s on the spectrum. You will never hear me introduce him as “my child with autism” unless the day comes when he says that’s what he wants.
So the ableists who want to call out the mom of an autistic child for defending her child and his culture… they need to take a goddamn seat and check their privilege while not defining my child according to what they feel defines him and doesn’t. Autism defines my child. Latino defines my child. South American defines my child. North American defines my child. Bilingual defines my child. Adorable defines my child. Just as a word can have many definitions, so can a child. Autistic is just one of the many listed under the dictionary entry of Little Bear.