But He’s Autistic

April 24, 2013 by Michelle

So yes, Mister Man’s on the autism spectrum.  I’ve had discussions – long debates – with friends about whether our children have autism  or whether they are autistic.  And the nomenclature really does make a difference.  If he is autistic, how much does that define him?  Autism is a part of him, sure, but he’s so much more than that.  I’ve written before, too, how Mister Man is very high functioning, which causes issues in and of itself because without an obvious disability that people can see, his behavior sometimes doesn’t make sense.

Mister Man spinach strawberry

He is capable of so much, and I see it.  He loves to cook and help me do it.  I can trust him to peel and cut up potatoes with a modicum of supervision.  He relates so well with his sister, and Little Miss adores playing with him.  They’re old enough now that I frequently send them outside to play, knowing they’re both responsible enough to stay safe and follow our rules.  Mister Man can get his math homework done in five minutes when he sits down to work on it.

know he can do all these things.

But some days, he doesn’t.  He’ll be at gymnastics, laying on the ground with his feet behind his head, completely ignoring the instructor.  Or he’ll sit down to do homework and instead chew on his pencil, then open a book to read it.  Or he’ll throw his pajamas at Little Miss as she’s heading back down the hallway to put her own pajamas in the dirty hamper, poking and prodding and annoying her, nonstop.

And I call him on it, each and every time.  I know he knows better and can do better.  I know he intends to do better but… forgot.  And he needs that reminder.  And every single time my mom sees me correcting him, reminding him to put his arms down when we’re in a restaurant instead of hanging them over his head and almost into the booth behind us, she comes back to me with, “But he’s Autistic.”

As if the phrase and the fact that he’s Autistic suddenly excuses all the things he does that are inappropriate or “odd thoughts” or that we should just pat him on the head and let him continue on his merry, misguided way.  As if it’s an excuse that means we shouldn’t strive for him to do better or more.  I find that so condescending to him because I see what he’s capable of and what he does on his own on a regular basis.

To me, that goes to the heart of the matter.  Is he autistic, or does he have autism?  If he is autistic, that becomes him, and that is his status.  It focuses our expectations around the autism and what he can’t do, all his limitations.  It lowers the bar and gives him a pass because he’s Autistic.  Instead, I look at him, and I see that he has autism and that it’s a part of him and causes him to be different.

I don’t put him in situations where he’s destined to fail or even struggle.  We did private swim lessons because being in the group when he was younger and immature was too tempting to play and not do what he was supposed to do while waiting for the other five children in his class to go across the pool with the instructor – and how many completely neurotypical kids have the same issue?  We tried t-ball and realized that team sports like that just aren’t his forte.  Instead, we found ways he can and does shine.  He adores tae kwon do, and he’s improving in his tramp and tumbling class – a class that is designed for kids who want to move and do gymnastics things but are in no way on a track to ever do any sort of competitive gymnastics.  We have playdates at our house more often than we do at others’ houses because it’s easier for me to monitor what’s going on and intervene to pull Mister Man back if necessary.  We carefully placed him in a Cub Scout pack that has quieter boys where the leader keeps things moving rather than the rowdy group that is already bordering on out of control.

As he grows up, he’ll have to become more and more independent and responsible.  The only way this is going to happen is if he starts to learn how when he’s young and the consequences are small.  So yes, I’ll tell him he needs to put the book away, and if he doesn’t listen, I’ll confiscate it.  I’ll remind him to keep his voice at an indoor level when we’re at a restaurant because the entire building doesn’t need to hear his side of the conversation.  I’ll have him apologize to his gymnastics instructor when he’s not participating and remind him again before the next class of exactly what my expectations are – not that he’s suddenly going to learn how to do a perfect cartwheel but that he keeps his hands to himself and focuses on his instructor.

Because I know he can.  I know he’s capable of all that and more.  He has autism;  he isn’t just autistic.  He’s so much more, and the excuse of “but he’s Autistic” just isn’t going to fly the majority of the time.  I have faith.



  • Patty

    I really admire you. The faith you have in him touches my heart. I only know your kids from reading about them and I believe in him too. He shines because of you. His life will be full of rich experiences because you teach him how to enjoy different things. 🙂

    • Michelle

      Thank you, Patty, but I have to say, I am *nothing* special or to be admired. I do no more than any other mother would – and does – every day. He’s an awesome kid though (most of the time) 😉

  • Tara R.

    This was a very thoughtful explanation, and I appreciate the distinction of Being autistic or Having autism. I have some of the same issues when trying to explain my son’s anxiety disorder and OCD.

    • Michelle

      I can only imagine. When there are issues that aren’t immediately visible or that have so many different nuances, it’s SO tough. I feel your pain, and you’ve been at it way longer than I have.

  • Sandra

    I’m so glad I read your perspective on the difference between being autistic and having autism. It totally makes sense. Because Mister Man *is* so much more. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Michelle

      Thanks, Sandra. It doesn’t just go with Mister Man though. The same is true of ANY child on the spectrum. It’s one of those things where you have to step back, take a look at the child, and think for a second rather than making snap judgments. And I know it happens way too often.

  • Kia

    I know exactly how it feels to be inside your own head. And like you i push. I have to, the world isn’t going to change for my daughter, i have to teach her how to adapt. and its so hard for our children because they are the ones who will deal with society on a regular basis. We can’t give them passes and we struggle with it. Its never easy but you keep pushing forward.

    • Michelle

      Oh, Kia. I know you’re another mom right there with me, too. YES they will have to deal with the real world and how it works at some point in time, and I would much rather help them by smoothing their path and helping them figure out how to navigate it rather than putting up false barriers and road signs. Keep pushing!

  • mrs4444

    This is beautiful,Michelle; I love it. You’re a great mom

    • Michelle

      Thanks, Barb. It’s been a post awhile brewing, but I’m not a great mom. I’m just doing what everyone else does. And I’m sure you see it with your students all the time, too. I just hope this helps someone else!

  • Sarah

    We have the same thing with our kiddo. I say he ‘has ASD’, exactly because he is SO much more than a label, but also because I think ASD is a dynamic condition that can change so much a child might not always meet diagnostic criteria, and I feel the word ‘autistic’ implies it is a fixed immovable feature. I hate the way people use the word ‘autistic’ as an excuse. Drives me nuts. Have standards for your children and maybe the kids will actually meet them. When standards for behaviour and performance are set artificially low, you’ll never know what children can achieve. Everyone loves a challenge, right?! I know someone who every time her kids were poorly behaved, she jumped right to the ‘autistic’ description and it irritated me, because her kids are capable of so much more. I just think it just sets them up for failure and a lack of responsibility and accountability. So, we might fall short of our standards regularly, but we also meet them more often than I would suspect. And that’s worth the failures.

    • Michelle

      I know you get it, Sarah, so much more than most. They absolutely do change and adapt. I look at Mister Man today and compare him with two or four years ago, and it’s not the same child. Without having high expectations – for any child, not just one with ASD – it doesn’t help them. They shouldn’t be so high that they aren’t achievable (thus, we aren’t in baseball!) but you need to always have standards. For every child.

      • Sarah

        Same here, we do individual sports, no soccer or t-ball here yet either. We do skiing, skating and gymnastics. Completely agree. And great post by the way.

        • Michelle

          Thanks, Sarah. Even some of the individual sports are hard. We HAVE to do gymnastics for core and upper body strength but we’ve had poor instructors lately who don’t pay enough attention to the kids, so it’s been a challenge keeping him (and the other kids) engaged. Hoping today is a better class!

  • Tiaras & Tantrums

    I couldn’t agree with you more! When my son was diagnosed at age 2 with a variety of “issues”, we decided to NOT tell anyone. We didn’t want this to define him. Rather we worked on the ‘problem’ areas with therapy and went full steam ahead. Do we still have issues today, of course. Like you, we remind that the behavior is unacceptable. Not because he is SPD/SID, but because they are simply that, unacceptable. I don’t ever want my son to say, well, I have such and such, I can’t be expected to do ‘that’.

    • Michelle

      Amen. We have never allowed him to use it as an excuse, but my mom does it all the time. I do tell people about it, partly for awareness because I want people to understand that it isn’t as scary as they may think it is and he can do so much… and yep, lots and lots of work on his issues. And still working, probably until the day I keel over!

  • Toni

    This is such a well written post, Michelle! I agree with you so much! We have some good family friends who have a boy with downs syndrome. It always saddened me that they didn’t work with him like they should have on speech, skills, etc. He’s now 31. Lives with them, can’t carry much conversation nor can you really understand him. I KNOW he could have been able to talk clearly and function almost on his own by now…but it didn’t happen for him. Kind of the same thing…he was categorized as having down’s so all of that was okay…I guess.

    • Michelle

      That’s so hard, Toni. It’s one of those things where you never know the whole story until you walk in their shoes, but I was talking to another friend on Friday who related that her daughter would probably never have walked at all had she forced her husband to stop carrying her everywhere. It’s so easy to want to help with everything and do things for EVERY kid, not just the ones with diagnoses, but sometimes that help does more harm than good in the long run.

  • Pat

    You are doing a wonderful job as a parent, Michelle. You follow through in correcting your son each time it’s needed. He is learning slowly but surely to change behaviors that are not acceptable. There is a 19-year-old girl at our church whom I have known since she was about 7, who has autism (not just borderline, but rather “severe”) and she has come such a long way in her communication skills thanks to her parents’ dedication to helping her learn acceptable behaviors and social skills. Keep up the good work. This is a very well-written post, as are all of your posts.

    • Michelle

      It is AMAZING how much of a difference so many kids can make over time. I look back at the way he was when he was three, and he isn’t the same kid – and that’s a good thing!

      And yes, thank you for the compliment. I really appreciate it!

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