Non-Autistic Parents: Why We Should Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable – Part Two

Written by Ellie Hunja

In Part One, we discussed what it means to recognize our privilege as non-autistic parents in conversations with autistic adults. It’s a difficult, but essential process.

Are you ready to dig in and get uncomfortable?

Let’s make it practical now. I’ll share four tips to help us check our heart posture as we interact with the autistic community.

But first, I want to share a quick note about my own journey. I have only been navigating the world of neurodiversity for less than a year, and there are so many dimensions that I have yet to understand.

However, I’ve spent my life navigating difficult topics from a privileged identity, having grown up as a white member of a Black community. I’ve been on a decades-long journey to understand that, no matter how deep my love is for my Black family members and friends, I will never be fully able to walk in their shoes.

I will always be growing in my ability to place my own preconceived notions aside and honor them as the experts on their own experience.  I hope that my insights from that journey will be helpful here.

So let’s dive in. In order to be mindful of our privilege and enter conversations with humility, we need to embrace these important truths:

1. I’m responsible for growing past fragility and into resilience.

While a “fight-or-flight” response may be built into our psychology, it’s still our responsibility to deal with. We need to practice naming, processing, and moving through the sense of shame, embarrassment, or lack of security that arises within us when our way of thinking is challenged. Then, we’ll be able to move past any potential offense and, instead, thoughtfully decide whether the information being presented is useful. We’ll experience gratitude that a marginalized person has taken the time and emotional energy to share and educate us.

2. We can’t simply state “let’s all just get along/be nice” when the person we’re speaking with is marginalized in a way that we are not.

I’m going to be really blunt here: when I’m the one with privilege in a conversation, my feelings don’t matter as much. Period. If I’m in a vulnerable place emotionally, it’s better for me to simply not engage in the conversation until I’ve grown in the resilience mentioned above.

I know that sounds harsh, because as humans we all have the same worth and dignity. You absolutely deserve safe spaces to process however you’re feeling. We all do. But your potential level of hurt in a conversation where you hold the privilege can simply never be equated with the other person’s. They have much more on the line, and we need to take the posture of centering their emotions and valuing them above our own. If we don’t feel able to do that in the given moment, it’s best to simply step back and not engage.

3. We need to question how we define “safe spaces”.

I get the feeling from some of my fellow non-autistic parents that they should be free to post “whatever they want” on their personal social media without fear of criticism. Now, this is a difficult topic because we all know how hideous trolling can be, and how easy it is to speak (type) without compassion when you’re behind a screen.

That being said, the question of who holds the privilege is relevant here, too. If I do the hard work of identifying my own blind spots and committing to personal growth, I’m less likely to be triggered when an autistic adult comes onto “MY” corner of the internet with an opposing viewpoint. If my heart is already in a posture to receive any information that could be helpful to me understanding my kid, I’m less likely to take offense.

There are dedicated spaces where non-autistic parents can receive support and speak in an unfiltered way with other parents. And I hope we each have at least one or two trusted, compassionate friends with whom we can share anything. Those are great outlets for the “good, bad, and ugly” of our experience.

Online, however, we need to be mindful of the autistic adults in our online space and consider their needs above our own. It’s our responsibility as the more privileged party to adjust our expectations in those more public settings – and even adjust what and how we choose to post.

Tiffany Hammond (Instagram / Facebook) speaks extensively about being mindful of how we represent our autistic loved ones publicly, including this post

4. Committing to growth in this area may mean adjusting the community that we surround ourselves with.

When we’re already operating with blind spots caused by privilege, it’s easy to surround ourselves with like-minded people and never really branch out. What do your circles of influence look like?

If you’re plugged into the “autism community” on social media, whose voices are you hearing? If the voices of other non-autistic parents tend to overpower actually autistic voices on your feed, perhaps it’s time for a shift.

This is especially important because most of us have much easier access to relationships with autistic adults online than we do in “real life”. It’s an opportunity we simply can’t afford to pass up.

The choice of whether to grapple with our privilege and amplify marginalized voices isn’t just about being a “better person”. It has a direct and significant impact on our relationship with our autistic children.

When we speak over autistic voices, we teach our children that they don’t have the power to speak for themselves.

When we strive for “unity” over discomfort and growth, we show our kids that we’re not open to all they have to teach us.

When we downplay issues that matter for the sake of avoiding conflict, we miss opportunities to be genuine allies and accomplices in the fight against ableism.

Fortunately, the reverse is also true:

When we uplift autistic voices, even when it means lowering our own, we show our children that we honor them as the experts on their own experience: both now, and as they continue to find new ways to express themselves.

When we face discomfort head-on to unlearn problematic ways of thinking, we demonstrate that we won’t let our egos stand in the way of being the best parent for our kids.

And when we take the time to learn about issues that matter to the autistic community and fight for change in solidarity with them, we show our kids that we will always be their ally – not with our own agenda, but one that’s rooted in the true needs of the community.

In short, when we love and respect our kids’ autistic community, we love and respect our kids.

As parents, our deepest and most genuine desire is the well-being of our children. Unfortunately, we’re parenting in a world that feeds us all kinds of problematic messages about autism and doesn’t support our needs – let alone the needs of our children. This births in us anxieties and frustrations that can seep into the way we seek out our kids’ well-being.

Those negative pressures can lead us to decisions that don’t actually help our children thrive. If we find ourselves saying things like “I’m the parent; I know best” and blocking out the autistic community’s perspectives because they make us uncomfortable, this could be a sign that the stresses we’re under as parents have made us take a wrong turn.

You do know your child best – it’s true. As a unique, one-of-a-kind individual, no one knows them better than you. But autism is a part of them that flows into every aspect of who they are, and it’s a part of them that we as non-autistics will never be able to step into. We need the autistic community to guide us.

If we recognize that we exist in an ableist world with privilege that we can’t ignore, and blind spots that we need help to identify, we can loosen our grip on our self-image and our allegiance to our own perspective. We can begin to approach our interactions with humility and a desire to learn – and even have our opinions changed.

I owe so much to the incredible autistic advocates I’ve connected with on social media. Here are a few helpful posts on this specific topic for further reading:

The Autisticats on how neurotypical parents can best interact with the autistic community

Fidgets and Fries on the false sense of “neutrality” and “unity”

Neuromess on choosing to take off our blinders instead letting ego get in the way

And here are some general resources for ongoing learning and conversation:

That Au-Some Book Club

Autism Inclusivity

I also recommend following the #actuallyautistic hashtag on Instagram, and the following accounts – just a few of my favorites!

@the.autisticats @fidgets.and.fries @asiatucoach @neurodivergent_lou @socialstoriesforneurotypicals @neuroclastic @nigh.functioning.autism @myautisticsoul @omgimautisticaf @neurodifferent @unnmasked @autieelle

Bio:

Ellie is a writer, social worker, and mom of two who values living with purpose, authenticity, and joy. She believes that empathy and vulnerability can change the world, and she writes about parenting, embracing autism, racial justice, mental health, and more at elliehunja.com. Ellie lives in LA and loves singing, rom-coms, and desserts of all kinds. She’d LOVE to connect with you on Instagram and Facebook!

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