Denis Leary created a stir in 2008 when he made public his belief, autism was caused by "inattentive moms and competitive dads." His comments echoed Bruno Bettelheim, who in the 1950's posited autism was caused by emotionally distant mothers whom he referred to as "refrigerator moms". While Bettelheim's theories were largely rejected in the 1960's, confusion reigns for a large number of people when confronted with an autistic child. Many people continue to believe autism is a psychological problem as opposed to neurological.
Recently a misinformed gentleman commented on one of my posts about how autism was "behavioral" at it's root. Sadly he is not alone in his opinions. As my mother so beautifully wrote in her post on our blog, autism is largely invisible. Because of this, people often assume the child is behaving badly because they are spoiled and the parents are unaware or worse, condone the bad behavior.
Emma - 2004 The Summer Before the Diagnosis
Several years ago, Joe, Emma's therapist of the past 5 years, was with Emma in the park when she fell to the ground screaming she wanted to ride the carousel one more time. Joe, knowing Emma needed to be back home, told her it was time to go. Emma refused and sat in the mud in her pretty dress crying and screaming. A group of women stood nearby, watching with looks of shock and concern.
Emma continued in full melt down mode repeating over and over again, "I want to ride on the carousel!"
One of the women asked Emma if she was okay. When Emma didn't respond, Joe tried to physically pick her up, thinking she might calm down once he was holding her.
Another woman in the group yelled at Joe, "Don't touch her!"
"You have no idea what's going on here," Joe said, trying desperately to get Emma to cooperate.
"I'm calling the police," the woman said, pulling out her phone.
Figuring he didn't have time to explain to the women, he finally picked Emma up and carried her out of the park.
The group of women followed Joe for the next ten to fifteen minutes. At which point Emma was calmer and Joe was able to get her into the subway and home. When Joe arrived back at the house, he was visibly shaken.
All of us who have spent time with Emma over the years have experienced versions of Joe's experience. I remember being in a playground in Central Park with Emma one weekend. It was crowded and Emma was having a tough time waiting for her turn on the swing. Each time one became empty she rushed forward, trying to grab it. I ran after her, explaining it wasn't her turn yet.
Finally one of the father's of another child turned to me and said, "Hey! Can't you control your kid?"
"She's autistic", I said.
Before I could explain further he interrupted me and said, "Yeah? My kid likes to paint too. Who cares?!"
Confused, I said nothing, but as I led Emma back to her place in line I realized he had misunderstood me and thought I'd said, "artistic".
It became a running joke at our house in explanation for our actions, we'd say with a shrug, "Hey, I'm artistic."