Sunday, August 12, 2012

Autism and Gender-Fluidity

I found this article in the New York Times Magazine, and the accompanying comments, fascinating. As the mother of a child with autism, I've often found myself feeling similar to how I imagine the parents of Alex -- the "gender-fluid" little boy -- felt when they sent an email to his classmates' parents, advising them to take it in stride when Alex wore a dress to preschool. But beyond what I imagine to be our shared emotions, the similarities end. Alex's parents can smooth their son's way by alerting the other children and adults in his path to his differences, and encouraging them to accept them. In a society that is becoming increasingly conscious of behavior that transcends gender norms, and increasingly open to experimenting in the gray area outside of those norms, Alex is sure to find his own milieu of open-minded friends and teachers who will write off his non-normative behavior as quirky.

As the mother of a child with autism, however, it has never occurred to me to send around a note about the possibility of my son being unusually difficult and disruptive if his expectations are thwarted in some way, if a slight change has been made to the day's anticipated plans, or if he makes a mistake in something he's writing, drawing, or playing on the violin. That's because children on the autism spectrum are expected to conform to certain norms of behavior. If a child has a diagnosis and an I.E.P., chances are that he will be assisted as he strives to meet those norms. But there's no equivalent, for autistic children, of "gender-variant" camp, where gray-area-gendered children are encouraged to dress up and play as the opposite sex. Certainly there are autism camps, but they tend to be of the intensive-training-to-enable-you-to-pass-for-neurotypical-and-thus-minimize-the-odds-of-having-a-miserable-life variety -- that is, not places where "neurologically-variant" children are encouraged to let all their autistic traits hang out, so to speak, in all the chaotic -- and disturbing -- glory such a thing would entail.

It is difficult for my son, as it is for all spectrum children, to conform to those norms. Like the parents of the gender-fluid kids, I worry about his future, and pray that he will have friends. But I know that it's not up to me, no matter how much I wish it were, to try to persuade other people to accept him as he is. I know, instead, that there is a balance that he will have to learn to strike for himself between conforming to the world's standards and being himself a standard bearer for neuro-atypicality and the very real gifts that it conveys. There is no autistic equivalent of a boy in a dress, nor even a "We're here, we're autistic, get used to it" t-shirt. While some of the people in Alex's world will find him adorable for wearing a dress in public, no one will find my truly adorable six-year-old so for having an atomic-level tantrum in public because McDonald's was all out of the mix for their vanilla shakes and he was compelled to choose something else.

So, on the one hand, I think, go on with yourselves, Alex and your parents. No one should care what you do; I certainly don't. But on the other hand, I'm not convinced that any attempts should be made to establish gender-fluid behavior as normative. Alex's parents should, rather, make it clear to their son that the world is not going to cut him slack as he gets older, and that, if he chooses to flout gender-normative behavior, things will be difficult for him. This is not cause for despair; it's acceptance of the way things are, and if Alex chooses to continue to cross-dress in public, he will undoubtedly develop an admirably strong character. After all, the world doesn't cut autistic kids -- or adults -- much slack, and it's up to us as parents to let our children know that they will have to control their impulses or pay the price. I don't see why the parents of gender-fluid children shouldn't do the same.


ex-new yorker said...

It seems to me like there's a pretty major movement to cut deviations from "gender-normative" behavior a whole lot of slack. "Gay rights" would be only one form of it... but after all, having "romantic" relationships with the opposite sex is about as gender-normative as it gets. The fact that it may not spring to mind as an example of the same sort of thing just shows how nearly complete that transformation of social mores has been...

Well, we have kind of sent the equivalent of a note with our spectrum kid by letting his then-potential/future Montessori religious ed teachers know in detail of issues that might arise. You may remember that this ended up with him not attending a second year of that program even though the first year had gone pretty well. I never brought myself to read the email from the person I had heard second- or third-hand was "uncomfortable" taking him on, because it came late after I made the decision to stop pursuing it and just try to teach him religion all by myself that year, and I am happy for it to be water under the bridge with her (the same teacher I'd hoped he would get the previous year, though he didn't). The first year, though, we always stayed very close to the parish property where the religious ed occurred, usually with a parent ready to intervene from the parking lot if needed. I think he was needed only once for behavioral issues. I also felt I couldn't send the same son to his first ever Vacation Bible School without my husband volunteering, going through the child protection training and the "Yes, I'm a man, but I'm here volunteering for my autistic kid" explanations I wanted him to make to practically any adult who saw him working the VBS.

That school I told you I'd love to be able to send him to focuses very intently on preparing kids like him in their weak areas when it comes to social behavior and interaction, while providing them supports for coping with their present difficulties while they're learning academic material. I may question my inferiority to a "trained educator" as this son's math or grammar teacher at this level, but whether or not he goes to this school, I know he's going to need someone (more likely, multiple someones) with extensive training and/or experience (and/or resources) I lack in very specific areas to maximize his chances at certain kinds of success. He's a smart, creative, interesting boy, but it's too easy to imagine that not just naturally leading to such "success."

I am traditional about sexual morality and certain kinds of sex roles, but I will admit my son's problem behaviors can be of a more inherently "disruptive" nature than a boy wearing a dress.

Sorry if this was a pointless comment... it's 3:25 a.m. My sleep is utterly haphazard right now. :)

Pentimento said...

Perhaps my comparison of autism with gender-fluidity, in terms of potential disruption and parents running interference to ward it off, was inapt. I agree, a tantruming child is far more disruptive than a boy wearing a dress, which stands out and may be disturbing, but not in a way that is truly an assault on the senses.

Melanie B said...

I think your comparison was very interesting. Especially in terms of personal responsibility for fitting into cultural norms. I do think that the politicization of GLBT issues has put parents into a position where they seem to need to force society to recognize non-typical behavior as acceptable instead of fringe.

I very much agreed with your final point that "Alex's parents should, rather, make it clear to their son that the world is not going to cut him slack as he gets older, and that, if he chooses to flout gender-normative behavior, things will be difficult for him." It reminded me of this piece I read recently by a man raised by a lesbian mother and her partner who found that his inability to recognize and give appropriate gender cues made him an outsider not only in the mainstream heterosexual community but also in the niche gay community.

And finally the discussion about expecting autistic individuals to conform reminded me of this post at bearing blog which touches on that very question about personal responsibility for behavior.

Somehow all of these threads fit together in a very interesting way and I'd love to draw some conclusions. But I'm not quite up to the mental gymnastics of drawing conclusions so I'll just leave it at that.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment and the links, Melanie. I'm out of town and have sporadic internet access, so I'll read the pieces and comment further as soon as I can. I hope you're feeling well.

ex-new yorker said...

This all -- well, let's focus on autism since there aren't any black and white moral "controversies" involved --seems like a classic grey area with room for give and take. Accommodations for other people's difficulties, and accommodations for other people who may have difficulty accommodating your difficulty... Maybe that's what's not so popular these days regardless of the specific issue. There are all these one-sided demands for sensitivity and "respect" and "rights."

I guess I was trying to do both -- ask for my son to be accommodated, but also accommodate others' potential difficulties with his special needs -- by approaching the mainstream religious education program and addressing how we could handle my son's issues, when this does not take place within a system that has laws requiring certain provisions for "disability" (and at the time I didn't have any definitive documentation of his "disability") and so on and so forth. I thought we could all approach each other as parents/teachers/volunteers with a common goal of fostering religious education for all children of the parish who could benefit from it. Although I have let it go and assume the best of her motivations, I guess that's why hearing secondhand back that one of the teachers (with the only realistic class time for us) was "uncomfortable" when I had asked to be put in touch with the teachers was so upsetting. I didn't yet know who it was, so I thought she didn't know what he was like and was writing him off based on an email indicating that he wasn't easy to sum up but had autistic traits that could potentially be disruptive and I wanted teachers to know that going in. I still wish the initial response had been, "Sure, email her at janedoe AT religioused or call her at..." I did spend some time spewing uncharitable vitriol (is that redundant?) about the idea that maybe people were so enchanted with this religious ed program because the volunteers were mostly in it for their own kids and could turn down those who made them "uncomfortable." A failure on my part to give the benefit of the doubt or try to understand (let alone address the teacher directly when I was told her identity), and possibly a failure on someone else's part to try to help, OR just a miscommunication via the third party.

Sorry if "bearing" made the same points or I'm otherwise missing my own repetitiveness. Tiredness/achiness allow me to hold forth but not so much to digest new ideas right now, so I only glanced at her post.

Melanie B said...

Feeling much better, thank you. Hitting the second trimester stride and so glad the nausea and exhaustion have abated.

Safe travels.

Pentimento said...

I liked that post at bearing. I believe that young adults with AS (my son will be one eventually) have to be held to social norms of behavior to the extent that it's possible -- and it IS possible, just much more difficult for them. Likewise, gender-fluid boys ought to have it inculcated in them that they wear dressed in public at their peril. I hate to be a hard man, but I really feel that a gender-fluid boy has a lot more conscious control over his behavior than does my neurologically-impaired son.

Pentimento said...

I meant "wear DRESSES in public."

ex-new yorker said...

Oh, we expected our son to participate and behave. The one time my husband got called in was because he was trying to get out of the classroom, which obviously is disruptive in that the teachers have to stop him for his own safety, but by the time my husband arrived he was "just" lying on the floor as someone knew enough to figure that the sound of a ticking timer would soothe him, and it did. But my husband stayed in the hall with him until he was ready to go back in and actually participate... we wouldn't expect the teachers just to accept it if he felt like lying on the floor but not directly "disrupting" anything. But we don't hold him to the same exact standards as his brother because I think he needs to master things on a more one-at-a-time basis. E.g., we have standards for his behavior at Mass for sure, but we don't correct every deviation from the correct posture or fidgeting or not appearing to pay attention the same as we did with his older brother when he was the same age.

I have been known at times to level with my non-autistic kids about the fact that people may find them annoying, not like them or want to be around them/be friends with them if they do certain things they feel like doing the way they feel like doing them that they do not *have to* do. These may or may not be things they just shouldn't do in the first place. I'd like them to learn to be considerate of others' sense of comfort except when they can't rightly do so.

Anonymous said...

I think it’s less a problem of needing to conform than one of needing to learn to control one’s behavior to the point where it can be appropriate to the situation. When I’m at home, or among loved ones in an environment where I can indulge my quirks, I can be as goofy as I really am. I can’t be that way in the office where I work – not because I have to conform (although you could put it that way if you like) but because that’s my workplace and I’m there to do my work, not to put my somewhat odd personality on display. If I hadn’t learned (with a LOT of help) to control those oddities and bring them out in the appropriate places, I would be severely handicapped in being able to generate an income and in many social situations as well. I believe that people who refuse to notice how the world actually is, and encourage their children to “let it all hang out” in every situation, are doing them a serious disservice. Unless they can remain somewhat insulated by having a career in the arts, they’re in for a horrible shock. They’ll discover as adults that they’ve been duped, and that the complete acceptance they experienced as children isn’t the norm – and they’ll have no skills with which to begin rebuilding themselves as a person who can function in a world where most of us don’t show most of what we are most of the time. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that every situation doesn’t present us with yet another opportunity to show and tell everything about ourselves. In fact, I’d say that encouraging children to be themselves in total, all the time, without regard for the situation, is teaching them to be socially clueless narcissists. There's a world of difference between choosing to be completely yourself in places where it's safe and appropriate, and being completely yourself everywhere because you can't help it, having not been taught or helped to control your impulses.

ex-new yorker said...

My husband and I are often aghast/bewildered/? at feeling like relatively authoritarian ("authoritative" is the better word) parents compared to many others we encounter. I really try not to be "judgy," especially because my kids (esp. the autistic one and the, well, just turned 4-year-old) *do* put me in a position where my parenting be what I would consider incorrectly and unfairly judged. But at ballet, for example. OK, no one, including the teacher, expects perfect compliance from a group of 2-and-3-year-olds (which is why every child needed her own adult to accompany them). But not only did the teacher have to visibly marshal her patience to ask parents politely to get their children who were running up during other children's turn at an activity, I witnessed a parent stopping to take video on her phone of her child doing her own thing in the middle of the room when we all had instructions to (try to) follow. There was no sign other than that she thought it was darling, not like she was filming it to discuss with her child's special needs behavioral consultant or anything. This type of thing seems so pervasive. The parents aren't nearly all people who come off as themselves narcissistic or rude, but their expectations of their kids kind of do.

Pentimento said...

Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I completely agree. When my as-yet-undiagnosed Aspie was a baby, I hung with a crunchy/AP group in Manhattan. On the one hand, I wished that I could "do" their parenting style, but later on I started to find it ridiculous and left the group. Now I'm sure I come off as the rigid, authoritarian parent, but no one who hasn't managed the behavior of an autistic child couldn't possibly understand.

I wonder if perhaps the crunchy, "unconditional parenting" ways of my old cohort DO work for their kids. Everyone I know who has tried to use them has failed in some measure, and, coincidentally or not, their kids have turned out to be neuro-atypical, or the mothers themselves are. Perhaps that kind of parenting actually does work for NTs, but I find it dubious somehow.

ex-new yorker said...

I wonder if perhaps the crunchy, "unconditional parenting" ways of my old cohort DO work for their kids.

Depends on the meaning of "work." For me it would mean lead to more virtuous children (filled with charity, humility, and the like, not just trained obedience to parental commands). Not that I know much about whether they really work for anyone, regardless of definition. I'll find another family/set of parents to idealize on occasion, but at least as long as I continue to be able to idealize them, I don't usually get to know them well enough to be sure how they got their kids to be the way they are.

And some of the personality has got to be hard-wired, and/or the reasons they turn out the way do too complex to figure out exactly.