Saturday, February 7, 2015

Attachment Parenting While Black and Autistic

(This post also appears on the "Respectfully Connected: Journeys in Parenting and Neurodivergence" blog HERE.)

As much as I can, I avoid those types of offices when my younger children are with me. You know the type: quiet, sterile, not child friendly. Offices where food, drinks, and/or electronic devices are not allowed and where a security guard is standing watch glaring at people. That type. I'm an adult, and even I don't like being there, much less my young autistic son and daughter.

But this time it was unavoidable - their presence was mandatory.  I made an appointment for a time in the afternoon that I assumed would hopefully move pretty quickly.  I packed along some toys, books, paper, and crayons, and hoped for the best.

The items I packed amused them for a while. But not long enough. 

My babies tried hard. But it was a long wait, and it was boring. And they are children - and children aren't designed to sit silent and unmoving for long periods of time. 

They weren't unruly. They were just trying to amuse themselves. Trying to pass the time. 

They walked between the rows of empty seats. The seats were a soft faux leather material. They ran their hands along the seats. 

The security guard said no. 

The tables were made of particle wood with decorative metallic pieces at the edges. The shiny, smooth metal felt nice on their hands and made a soothing clinking sound when they tapped their nails on it. 

The security guard said no. 

The floor was cold to the touch and perfect for quietly sliding and for sitting and spinning in place.

The security guard said no. 

The area near the entryway was made out of glass and had a "mirrored" appearance. They were drawn to it. They stood close to it and peered at their reflections as they made funny faces.

The security guard said no. 

They sat back down in their seats next to me and amused themselves by reciting scripts of their favorite children's TV shows and excerpts of their favorite Laurie Berkner Band songs. They swayed and flapped along to the melody of their voices. 

The security guard said no. 

And when I say she said no, I don't mean she politely said no. Each time the "no" was accompanied by an exasperated tone of voice, a contorted facial expression, loud sighing, and remarks muttered under her breath about "bad" children. Followed by a disparaging "side eye" glance. 

Y'all know about the side eye, right? Well, this was no ordinary side eye. It was laden with judgment and hostility. It silently screamed, "You need to control your bratty kids." And it also screamed, "You are an embarrassment to us."

An embarrassment to "us." "Us" being black people - for the security guard, like myself, was black.

We've all heard it. From black comedians to blog posts to casual conversation, there are various places where people remark on what they view is a marked difference between the way white parents and black parents rear their children - especially in the American South. Though a lot of things about child rearing transcend race, there is a sizeable group of people who perceive that black parents often place a stronger emphasis than white parents on the way children are expected to behave in public - and therefore if a black child was believed to be "acting out" publicly, then such a child didn't have the right "home training." The child's "misbehavior" was perceived as the parents' fault (for being too lax and/or ascribing to a "white" ideal instead of instilling "proper manners" in the child).




Though by this point I was very frustrated with the security guard, I could see that my kids were growing weary. Every attempt they had made at self-regulation had been shut down. And not even shut down politely, but with a barely veiled attitude. I felt that I needed to say something, so I decided to confront her respectfully but assertively. My purpose was two-fold. I wanted to stand up for my kids, but I also wanted to make her understand. This wasn't about being a "bad" kid or being unruly for the sake of disrupting others. Maybe if she was informed she would have a different take on things. It was worth a try.

I approached her slowly, stopping at a neurotypically appropriate distance. "Excuse me," I said. "I'm not upset, but I heard what you said. About my kids being bad. I'm not mad or anything, but I needed to let you know you were wrong. My kids aren't bad; they're autistic. They're trying their best to wait here like everyone else, but it's really hard."

The security guard was somewhat light complexioned, and I saw her flush slightly at my words. "I'm sorry for using the word 'bad.'  I didn't really mean 'bad' but it was the first thing that came to my mind. I didn't mean for anyone to hear," she stammered.

"My kids aren't bad," I insisted.

"No, they not bad," she conceded. "They  just…spoiled, right? You're just going to have to teach them how to act 'cause you know people like us can't get away with stuff like they can."

Taken aback at her words, I struggled for a few seconds trying to form my words into a coherent response. Before I could speak again, she continued:

"They always trying to label us with something. Your babies sound smart. And they talk really well too. I bet they not really autistic at all. Don’t let them label your kids. They tried to do that with my son too, and my husband and I told them they didn't know what they were talking about 'cause my son does NOT have no ADHD."

At that moment I heard someone attempting to pronounce my name over the intercom. I hurried away from her and returned to where my kids were seated. I gathered up our belongings and ushered the kids out of their seats so we could walk through the inner set of doors where a woman holding a clipboard was beckoning us with hand movements to come her way.

I didn't get a chance to tell the security guard all of the things that were in my mind.  Such as her calling my kids "spoiled" was not any better than calling them "bad." Neither was respectful, and neither was true. My choosing to utilize a responsive way of engaging with my children that promotes attachment and respects their wishes and their limits is NOT "spoiling" them. It's loving them. 

I also wished that I could have told her that my kids DO know "how to act." They just happen to act differently than neurotypicals do. That even for me (an adult), the office wasn't a comfortable place. It had bright fluorescent lights, really cold temperature, and hallways that echoed - on top of the electronics ban and the (unreasonable in my opinion) insistence on silence. As an autistic woman, it was clear to me that universal design was of little to no priority in this place, and neither was inclusion. Also, I wished that I could have told her that being "smart" and having the ability to express oneself by speaking didn't mean that one couldn't be autistic. And that being autistic isn't a "label" that one should shy away from, but a way to understand and identify oneself. Perhaps it is a form of labeling, but it is a welcome and helpful "label."

I wish I could have told her these things.

But I also wish I could have told her that I knew precisely what she meant by the fact that "we" (meaning people of color, especially black people and most especially black people and other people of color with disabilities) don't receive the same consideration, treatment, or services as our white counterparts. That her observation about how frequently youth of color, especially males, are identified as special education students (and subsequently segregated in too many cases) was correct. And that while my kids' diagnoses were 100% accurate, there is a societal tendency to perceive the behavior ofblack and brown boys as more problematic than their white peers, and that in some cases these biased and inaccurate assumptions may lead to misdiagnoses. And in other cases, it can lead to even more devastating consequences, as we have seen with Reginald "Neli" Latson and others.

I wish I could have told her that on one hand I was both offended and annoyed by her ableism and her stereotyping, but on the other hand I could relate to her being concerned about the lack of parity between how behavior is perceived from one race to another. 

I wish I could have told her how much I disagreed with her, yet how much I also agreed with her.

I cannot tell her.  But I can tell you. And hope that if more people begin to give a d@mn, and as more people call out these disparities, we can begin to see a noticeable difference in the way things are for ALL autistics, regardless of color.




Until then, I have to brace myself, and my kids, for more instances like this. Undoubtedly we will encounter many more people who will make similar assumptions. It's bound to happen again - and again - because we are black, because of our relationship-based parenting approach, and because the behaviors associated with autism are so greatly misunderstood by the general public.

She was not the first, and she will not be the last.


We will just have to be ready next time.

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