What Makes Someone “Aware” of Autism? A Baby Bump?

14 Apr

No, I don’t have children. Not that you asked, but, maybe, you were wondering. Or, maybe you don’t care in the slightest about the outcomes of my procreation habits, for which I thank you. No offense, but they are none of your business.

Or are they? Many, many, many people seem to believe that the answer to that very question is critically germane to my business, which most of you know by now, is an autism spectrum specialist. If you read my blog with any regularity, you know that a business is not what I consider my life’s work and passion, but I digress.

Perhaps because I am a woman, perhaps because I am a relatively young woman (30 next month!), perhaps because I arbitrarily look fertile or motherly or something, I am asked, “Do you have children?” frequently. No, wait, what’s more than frequently? Well, too much.

Sometimes, the question appears to be a moment of commiseration. “You know [insert something frustrating, annoying, embarrassing about having children], you have children, right?” Other times, the question is based on faulty pseudo-logic: “You [pick one of the following: work with, have patience for, seem to enjoy, have fun with kids], you must have some of your own.”  Most times, though, this question is wielded as a secret weapon that is, in the holder’s mind, a trump card. I don’t have that card in my deck, which means I lose. Game over. Don’t pass go and do not collect $200.

Two years ago, I met a family for the first time with their seven-year-old son. During the developmental history, a question and answer data collection procedure (not a time when I provide thoughts/opinions/recommendations — meaning, I had yet to open my mouth to do the helping portion of my job), the mother began looking around my office. Fairly typical and expected, especially during an initial consultation. My office is filled with toys, games, Mini Cooper Hot Wheels, dinosaurs, bean bags, and books. As her perusal continued, I became curious, following her line of sight. My degrees, awards, and other frame-worthy, credibility-indicating items are strategically in full view. Those were not the point of interest. What’s left in my office? I remember thinking. Well, nothing. Except me.

That realization hit when she made eye contact with me. It was like that stylized, cliched “high noon” showdown. You know, when two cowboys shuffle down a dusty road, hands quivering near their pistols or, I guess in this situation, baby rattles. Well, in this showdown, I didn’t have a Tickle-Me Elmo to counter with. “You don’t have children. You don’t have a ring on. You have no pictures of family. What makes you qualified to work with kids?” I stood my ground but shot blanks. They opted to not work with me.

For me, there has always been an inherent irony. Not having children has allowed me to work later (which means MORE) and to devote time and energy to my clients in ways that might be diminished if I had my own children. Irony aside, the idea that motherhood makes me more qualified is one that has never resonated with much integrity. In my mind, it’s like requiring an auto mechanic to have a car in order to provide you service. Hell, it’s even better if the mechanic has the same make and model. (I’m still searching for who can service my customized Mini Cooper.)

I’m not asking for parents to settle for the childless, nor am I trailblazing a Child Left Behind policy. Rather, I’m looking critically at the comparisons that can be drawn between ASD and NT. The countless developmental histories I have completed (in clients who have stayed and left) document how the trajectory and experiences that make up the “life” of a child on the spectrum are inherently, (obviously) diagnostically different from that of a neurotypical child. Yet, it is that very neurotypical child that others want me to have (as if I have control over that). That child would not help me understand my clients in ways that parents assume or hope.

On the flip side, I do think my clients help me understand all children and, for that matter, all people. I guess, when I do have a child, I have to make sure he or she is on the spectrum. I can frame the birth certificate and hang it next to my diplomas.


Posted by on April 14, 2011 in Uncategorized


6 responses to “What Makes Someone “Aware” of Autism? A Baby Bump?

  1. Courtney

    April 14, 2011 at 12:24 PM

    Being a parent doesn’t make you any more qualified for helping kids with ASD, especially if you have a neuro-typical child. I don’t think that being a parent has helped me be a better teacher, but it has given me a different perspective on working with parents. I now realize the level of confidence that a parent must have to entrust their child to you. It’s probably for the best that the mother you are describing opted not to work with you. There would have been trust issues from the start, which you know can lead to undermining everything you’re working so hard to accomplish.

    If this is your life’s passion, then you have nothing to regret if you choose to not have children. I always said, before I had Grace, that I could be a really good special ed teacher or a really good mother. I’m not sure I could simultaneously be both. I stand by that today. Motherhood is the path that I chose, but it’s certainly not for everyone. Sometimes, I’m not even sure it’s right for me! 😉

  2. Evalyn

    April 14, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    When mothers ask that question, it may be out of self-interest. Parents of special-needs kids have a demanding life. I know. I am a mother of two Aspies. There were times when I needed intervention as much as my children did. Asking a teacher, counselor, therapist, autism specialist, etc, “Do you have children” is tantamount to asking, “Do you have any idea what my life is like? Can you sympathize with me?”

    The problem with that approach is that it’s not about us. It’s about the kids. And we should be focused on getting someone to help our children who because of special experience and education is capable of understanding our children–and providing them with the help they need.

    Moms who ask you “the question” haven’t figured out they are seeking help for themselves. Too bad, because it would be far easier and more beneficial for you to refer them to a therapist who can address their needs, than for you to give birth/adopt in order to obtain the “credentials” they think you should have!

    • jholverstott

      April 14, 2011 at 1:41 PM

      I agree completely, Evalyn. It’s just one of those hidden curriculum questions you should learn to NOT ask, right?

      • outoutout

        April 15, 2011 at 10:58 PM

        I think Evalyn has hit the nail on the head. This question is more about the needs of the parent(s) than about you or your expertise.

        “The problem with this approach is that it’s not about us.”

        Well.. it’s certainly not ONLY about us, but parents are very much a part of the treatment process, too. And I think many parents – quite naturally – will seek out someone whom they feel will “get them”, as a family. Especially parents of special needs children who may be already weary of dealing with clueless/ignorant/offensive “advice” from family, friends, strangers, and even so-called professionals.

        No, it’s not right or fair for them to knock back a therapist for not having more “personal” experience. No, it shouldn’t matter. Yes, it’s totally irrational – but then again, these decisions usually are. I guess what I’m saying is, maybe you have to expect this sort of thing from time to time? Another way of looking at it is that it’s a good way of weeding out situations which probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway..and I think you can safely say so if your “procreation habits” mattered that much.

  3. Tam

    April 14, 2011 at 9:00 PM

    I get told “well, you don’t have kids” all the time, usually coming from parents who think it’s ludicrous that I could possibly have good advice to offer them in regards to their child… and usually after they’ve ASKED for my advice. Parents seem to use that trump card whenever they don’t like what they hear and want an excuse to dismiss it as pointless.

    It’s really frustrating. Those without kids see things from the perspective they have, which is of BEING the kid once upon a time, which is a perspective that parents tend to lose touch with. I wish more parents could realize this, as they’d be more apt to hear the advice that could make their lives easier in some situations.

    All that said, having kids, spending time actually having to raise kids, does offer a type of experience that one’s not going to have without that experience. It’s just not usually the type of experience that’s necessary in the context where parents tend to throw that question around as an insult.

  4. Kathryn

    April 25, 2011 at 10:08 AM

    I suspect that when families get to you they’ve already been through a lot. Lots of criticism of both themselves as parents (because if you didn’t screw something up, why would your kid behave like that. Just make them stop.), and of their children. They are afraid that you are going to be one more person who will tell them that their precious child is bad and that it’s all their fault.

    Part of their wondering if you are a parent is that they want to know who you are. Do you understand how much they adore this kid? Do you understand how afraid they are for her? If you also have a child they think maybe you get it. It doesn’t mean that if you don’t you can’t, but they really are trying to understand who you are, and they know that one thing that informs that is if you have kids.

    And it IS about the child, but their parents are the ones who will really be helping them — you’re probably not going to see the child more than an hour or so a week. Try hard not to get defensive about this. Saying “No, I don’t have kids of my own, but I’m passionate about working with kids and can’t wait to get to know your daughter,” sounds better than just telling them it doesn’t matter.


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