Misconceptions Regarding Autism

Denis Leary made a stir in 2008 when he made public his belief that 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, there remains confusion by many people when confronted with an autistic child.   My guess is many people believe autism is a psychological problem as opposed to neurological.  As my mother so beautifully wrote in her post From Emma’s Granma 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.

Several years ago, Joe, Emma’s therapist, 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 there was nothing he could say or do to make the women understand, he finally was able to pick Emma up and carry 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 that 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?  Well 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 whenever any of us didn’t want to do something we’d say, “Hey, I’m artistic.”

5 responses to “Misconceptions Regarding Autism

  1. claudia cunningham

    This piece has me laughing! Principally because, I believe I’ve actually heard you all use the “artistic” line jokingly. And because, when one is with Emma in New York, there’s always the possibility that Emma will stop traffic in any store, on any street because she does what she wants to do – literally. Like the day she raced toward the fountain and reflecting pool near the Apple store, fully engaged with the idea of playing in the water – and completely heedless of the security guards moving toward her! She’s so beautiful and primal that it ended well but what an amazing ride Em takes you on as she moves toward the object of her desire with unnerving aim.

  2. People are sooo frickin’ oblivious, insensitive, and self-righetous. Oh. My. God.

  3. Paula from Aspen

    And then there was the time when Richard was traveling alone with her and when they wouldn’t let people off the plane after it had landed Emma went into melt down mode screaming, and the other passengers looked at Richard like he was some sort of monster father…

    Why aren’t more people aware of autism? Just because it doesn’t “show”? If someone with cerebral palsy went into spasms, would everyone look at the care-giver and say “I’m going to call the police, you monster?”

    I think the greatest concern in the US today is uneducated people, concerning health, environment, and how they affect each other. Who knows? Maybe pollution is the culprit? Should we call the police?

  4. This was a never forget moment. I love it-purely for the sense that it brought a smile to all of your faces and to mine as well. Thank you for sharing…and please share more.

    …each one, teach one…

  5. That’s hilarious and sad at the same time. I know how hard it is when well-meaning people don’t get what you are trying to do (or survive) and it can make you look like you’re a menace to society. I, too, have had the “artistic” confusion but it always happened when I wasn’t in a mood to laugh.

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