Autism and grief

I am not grieving, despite the concern (?) from CS in a comment on my most recent post.  (Nor am I simply in denial as I’m sure some will tell me about my thoughts on autism and raising an autistic child.)  I have written about grief and autism before, though, and this seemed like a good time to dust that post off and repost it.

From April 2006, Autism and the 5 Stages of Grief:

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For many families, a diagnosis of autism in a child brings about a profound sense of loss. Since most people don’t actively educate themselves about autism before the diagnosis – let’s face it, no one thinks it can happen to them – most of what they know comes from what they may see, hear, or read in the media. Unfortunately, the vast majority of stories about autism in the media are about the ‘devastation’ of autism, of how kids are ‘lost’ in a strange and terrible world away from society.

As a result, I think that many people who find themselves facing an unexpected diagnosis slip into the 5 stages of grief. The link provides some details on the 5 stages, including some discussion of why some think they are not valid, but here are the 5 stages themselves:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

These are the stages, as I understand it, that a person will go through if left on their own, if they don’t receive any support or gain any understanding beyond the feeling of loss. One of my goals with Autism for Parents [ed: an unfortunately now defunct site] is to present an alternative to these ‘default’ stages that treat an autism diagnosis as a devastating loss with a series of steps that parents can take to fully understand their situation and go beyond mere acceptance.

Here are the steps I’ve come up with.

  • Denial – unfortunately, unavoidable [ed: at least until everyone accepts that it could happen to them and/or that it is not a bad thing to have happen]
  • Confusion – again, unavoidable
  • Understanding – the process a parent takes to understand the situation. In this step, will answer the questions that come from the confusion stage.
  • Plan – based on understanding gained in previous step, make a plan for your life ahead (something parents do with all kids)
  • Act – live life to the fullest, adjusting the plan as your understanding grows.

I’m interested in any feedback to help refine the individual steps, or the overall concept itself. I’ll explore each of the steps in a bit more detail in subsequent posts and will consider all comments/suggestions.

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Another comment, this one from Phil Schwarz, talks about the real need for grief in some situations, but also reminds us of what it is we are really grieving.  Phil references Jim Sinclair’s Don’t Mourn For Us, which I discovered, and wrote about, along with Phil’s Cure, Recovery, Prevention of Autism? not long after writing the “5 Stages” post.

To me, the most important stage for parents is Stage 5 – ACT.  In this context I don’t mean act in a “big” way, trying to change the world while all but ignoring your child.  I mean act in a “small” way, as a parent, doing your best with what you’ve got and raising a happy, confident, and self-assured child that becomes a happy, confident, and self-assured adult.

Or, as Phil so eloquently put it in his comment:  It’s what you do beyond the grief that matters.

Autism, neurodiversity, and parenting

After over three years of blogging about autism, I’ve finally found the right words to express my feelings, as a parent, about autism and neurodiversity.

I admire and appreciate the important and necessary work of Jim Sinclair for both autism, and in general for people with disabilities. It is an extremely well-written and concise expression of rights of those with disabilities, the folly of many parents in missing the individual beauty and development of their own child in the constant misguided comparison with an incomparable standard, and the need for public accommodation and acceptance of autism as a different way of being. I myself have used that expression, “a different way of being”‘ in conversation, and it describes autism well, without defining it as less-than.

I do not, however, accept the entire message and implications of the neurodiversity perspective. I understand the need for a concise theory, but sometimes the neat and tidy package does not fit some of the intricacies of reality.

I do not accept a logic chain that precludes reasonable treatment efforts particularly early education / intervention from being defined as anything but unacceptance, of one’s child and autism in general. I fully love and accept my child, regardless of the abilities he has now or in the future. I don’t accept that it makes me a lesser parent in that I am sending the message that my son is “not good enough” or I don’t accept him as he is. I am a full parent to my children. The same parenting ideals hold for my daughter who is neuroytpical. I am parenting her, based on my love, her needs and what will help her to live a full and happy life. I have always worked hard as a parent to educate her. Does that then imply that I do not accept her? Of course not, it means that I want to educate, stimulate, give options for how to be in the world, teach skills to foster communication and connection with others, as much independence as possible by trying to be the best possible parent.

If you logically extend Jim Sinclair’s argument, then no child is accepted if they are being educated. If we accepted children as they are, then we would not need to alter their natural state of being by educating them. Would the neurodiversity perspective have me feel guilty or wrong for parenting appropriately as per my definition of good parenting?

Sinclair’s stance works well for natural disabilities, but autism may not always necessarily be the natural sate of being for a particular individual. I do believe there may be some on the spectrum who have autism from a genetic basis, or that autism began before birth, which may indeed fall completely under the neurodiversity umbrella. However, the possibility of environmental triggers playing a role in autism exists, which would mean the possibility exists for reversal or treatment of same, as an unnatural state of being in certain cases. I love my son whether he was born with autism, developed it in utero, or was injured environmentally at some point which triggered or enhanced it. Just as parents whose children have cancer fully love and accept them, but still want to find a cure or treatment, as well as give them an enriching and happy life, how ever the condition progresses, so I want for my son. As for using cancer as a comparison, the comparison begins and ends with the way I have used it specifically in the above example.

I agree with Mr. Sinclair that rigid insistence that the child with autism communicate with neurotypical people in only a neurotypical fashion is selfish and narrow-minded, as well and limiting to the parent-child relationship and the child’s development. I agree with the need for those with autism to have allowances, accommodations, ways and places to be in the world. Education of the public regarding the rights of those with autism is sorely needed.

I applaud the work and feel that the neurodiversity perspective is a necessary part of public education and awareness, but I wish the perspective did not require a scapegoat to secure the strength of its message. Parents benefit from such guidance to a point, but not the accompanying pressure and judgment.

Words cannot define the overwhelming love I feel for my son, and no “perspective” will tell me that I am not acting in his best interests, and that I as his parent, am in the appropriate position to do so.

Finally, I fully and unconditionally love and accept my son (and always will), and I want the very best education and treatment for him. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

As you may have gathered from the indented quote (and a reference to a daughter I don’t have), these words are not mine. They are the words of Marni Wachs, and autism mother from Winnipeg, Manitoba, posted as a guest blogger at Harold Dougherty’s Doherty’s blog Facing Autism in New Brunswick. I’ve touched on many of these themes before at various times, but have never been able to pull it together as neatly and concisely as Marni has.

Thanks to Marni for allowing these comments to be posted, and thanks to Harold, who is known for an occasional rant against neurodiversity and the Autism Hub, for posting comments that include the statement, “I applaud the work and the feel that the neurodiversity perspective is a necessary part of public education and awareness.”

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EDITED (7/22):  Based in large part on Amanda’s comments to this post, I’ve gone back and modified the original post by highlighting those things that I feel and believe.  (Of course, I could have been much more concise about it and simply said, as Wade did in the comments, “Parenting is parenting,” but conciseness is not something I’m often accused of.)

Also in response to Amanda’s comments, I will be discussing Jim Sinclair’s writings in a future post.