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.”