My Foreword to The Real Experts

November 6, 2015

The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children is a great little anthology of short and accessible writings by autistic authors, assembled by editor Michelle Sutton for the benefit of families of autistic children and also for educators, therapists, and other professionals. 

The Real Experts is published by Autonomous Press, the independent publishing house I co-founded. 

The Real Experts is available directly from Autonomous Press, from online retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble (though it’s better for small publishers when you order from us directly), and from your coolest local bookstore if you ask them to carry it. 

The Real Experts includes my pieces What Is Autism? and This Is Autism, along with pieces by eleven other excellent autistic writers. I also wrote the Foreword – and here’s that Foreword now, as an appetizer for those of you who haven’t read the book yet…

This book is for parents of autistic children.

It’s also for grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives – not to mention teachers, therapists, support staff, and anyone else involved in the care and upbringing of a young autistic person. This book will also be of value to scholars and researchers studying autism, and to academic faculty like myself who are involved in training the next generation of professionals in fields like psychology and education. But first and foremost, Michelle Sutton put this book together with her fellow parents in mind.

Every good and loving parent in the world faces the same question every day: How do I help my child to thrive?

Every time a truly good and loving parent makes any sort of parenting choice, however big or small – whether it’s choosing a school or choosing a bedtime story, choosing when to put a toddler down for a nap or choosing what rules and advice to give a teen about dating – that is the question we must answer as best we can, the question that guides our decisions, even if we never put it into words.

How do I help my child to thrive?

Any good parent can tell you that this question is endlessly challenging. No matter how many times we grapple with it and find what we hope is a good answer, a new situation is guaranteed to come along soon that requires us to grapple with it yet again and to find yet another answer. And sometimes we have to wait months or years or even decades to find out how good our answers were.

If your child is autistic, and you’re not autistic yourself, the question of how to help your child to thrive becomes a hundred times harder. But this is not because being autistic is in any way incompatible with thriving. Rest assured that autistic people can thrive, and do thrive. Autistic people, including your child, can have good lives full of joy and love and meaningful connection and creative fulfillment.

So why is it so hard to determine how to help your autistic child to thrive? Most of the difficulty can be traced to three factors.

The first factor is that your child’s sensory experience of the world is fundamentally different from yours, and the way your child’s mind works is fundamentally different from yours. So different that it may be nigh-impossible for you to imagine what your child experiences, senses, thinks, knows, or feels, or what your child is trying to communicate, or why your child is doing some particular thing . And this, of course, can make it quite difficult to figure out what your child needs. Fortunately, the insights of autistic adults can be of great help in this regard. Autistic adults have been there. They have insider knowledge.

The second factor is that there’s so much misinformation and bad advice about autism out there. Many of the standard “expert” or “professional” approaches to autism are badly misguided and rooted in ignorance. For instance, there are certain “therapies” that are widely recommended for autistic children but that are actually harmful and traumatizing (the most widespread of these, Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA, is addressed in some of the writings in this book). When so many of the “experts” are so utterly wrong and so confident in their prejudices and misinformation, it’s hard to know who to listen to. Here, again, the insights and insider knowledge of autistic adults are invaluable.

The third factor is that because the minds, interests, experiences, abilities, and needs of autistic people are different from those of non-autistic people, “thriving” also looks different in autistic people than it does in non-autistic people. Health, happiness, success, personal fulfillment, good relationships, psychological well-being, a high quality of life – all of these things are possible for autistic people, including your child, but the autistic versions of these things are often quite different from the non-autistic versions.

When you’re trying to help a “typical” child to thrive, the society in which you live provides you with many models of what a thriving child looks like, and many models of successful, thriving adultood. These models provide some idea of what you’re aiming for, some idea of what you want to help your child to become. But parents rarely have access to models of what a thriving autistic child looks like, or a successful, thriving autistic adult. So how do you know if your autistic child is on the right track, developmentally, when the “right track” for your child might be vastly different from the established societal standards of what the “right track” looks like?

Most non-autistic “experts” are unhelpful about this sort of thing, because they regard autism as intrinsically unhealthy, intrinsically a “wrong track.” Most non-autistic “experts” think that key to helping an autistic person thrive is to try to make them non-autistic, or to try to make them as “indistinguishable” from a non-autistic person as possible. Making an autistic person into a non-autistic person simply can’t be done (though sadly, many parents fall prey to unscrupulous quacks and cultish organizations selling phony and expensive “treatments” for autism). And trying to make an autistic person outwardly “indistinguishable” from a non-autistic person ultimately does the autistic person far more harm than good, as you’ll see in some of the personal accounts in this book.

So when it comes to the question of what the path to a good life might look like for your autistic child, autistic adults can yet again offer crucial insight, and can also serve as inspiring examples.

Michelle Sutton, who put this book together, is the mother of six children, two of whom are autistic. Listening to the insights and experiences of autistic adults has helped Michelle to help her autistic children to thrive.

The dozen autistic people who have contributed their writings to this book (and I’m honored to be one of them) are all thriving, in our own ways. Most of us had a hard time getting to the point where we were thriving, and many of us are still recovering from the hard times we had. We accepted Michelle’s invitation to contribute to this book because we want the next generation of autistic children, including your child, to have an easier time. Like you, we want your child to thrive.




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