Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Differences & Special Education

Comeback...or Setback?

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Ah, the crafty comeback. Who among us has never yearned for the obsidian arrowhead of words in the face of the rude, tiresome, or just plain senseless question or remark from strangers--or from relatives whose blood is not thicker than water? MAD magazine's Al Jaffee raised the art of the comeback to its highest humorous form in his series of Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions books. Among my favorites, a mother with identical, dressed-alike five-year-old sons fields the same question over and over: "Are they twins?" "No," deadpans the mother. "He's an only child. Who's your eye doctor?" Nowadays, Internet forums collect similar quips from real people. Parents adopting Asian children report confronting questions such as "Do you have to feed them a lot of rice?" with wisecrack replies of "Are you feeding yours a lot of baloney?" or "We tried to wean them off, but they starting speaking French."

These humorous comebacks apply a light touch to obvious or silly questions, but they achieve what we all want of a pithy retort--that we get the last word, that those words have enough bite to puncture and deflate the party who has offended us. For some of us, the compulsion to do this skyrockets when the remarks and questions come as insults to our children or our parenting competence. Though autism awareness among the general population has grown in recent years, ignorance still abounds, and we are all astounded by how judgmental and mean-spirited some folks can be in that ignorance.

Our children with autism navigate the world through an obstacle course unimaginable to those who have no familiarity with autism. The sensory challenges alone would bring down most healthy adults, not to mention the layering on of communication frustrations, disruptions of routine and environment--and having to deal with unreasonable people. "Why can't you get your kid to ________?" "Will he ever be normal?" Sooner or later, most of us raising a child with autism will face the rude question, the derisive glare, the just-loud-enough-to-overhear put-down. And the yearning for a snappy comeback ignites.

With the last decade's increase in autism comes an increase in families confronting the unkindness of strangers, and an accompanying glut of advice on formulating comebacks. Societal incivility in general is spreading like fungus, so it's no surprise that the snappy comeback has veered away the humorous or thoughtful edge that might actually lead to a shared chuckle, a conversation, and a degree of understanding of autism. Websites touting "best" autism comebacks offer the likes of:

"You should teach your son table manners."

"Totally! I couldn't stop him from flicking a booger into that salad you just finished."

"All he needs is a good smack and he'll get the message."

"If I holler at you in French, will you become fluent?"

"Can't you stop her from doing that?"

"She only does it when her autism is in its contagious stage."

I'm uneasy with the proliferation of this type of comeback, as I am with anything that drives a deeper wedge between our kids and the vast general population with whom they must learn to interact if they are to take their rightful place in the world as productive, independent adults. I want to erase, not darken, the line drawn by the us-them mentality, and any mentality that views the child with autism as a lesser being.

The snarky comeback lowers us to the level of our harasser. The satisfaction it may give us is momentary. It's done nothing to enlighten an uneducated mind. It models for our child a means of sustaining, intensifying and elevating conflict rather than resolving it. It propagates and mirrors the incivility we so deplore when it is directed at our children. If each of us in our own small sphere won't make the choice to refuse being part of it, how will this ship of crassness ever turn around? Is it easy to keep a civil tongue in your head while those around you cannot or will not, when they harpoon you in your most tender spot? Heck, no. Not much about parenting a child with autism is easy. But taking the high road in the face of jerks and meddlers becomes the easier choice when we consider that our responses to ignorance and prejudice shape our child's future, one encounter at a time. It's really a very simple choice: perpetuate the status quo, or build awareness, understanding and acceptance, one mind at a time.

Refusing to lower ourselves to the level of our tormenters doesn't amount to retreat or meekness. We often rue words flung in anger but seldom regret taking the high road. That I so deeply believe this didn't mean it was always easy for me to model it for my children. I'm petty enough to be proud of the time I gave a mouthy rhymes-with-witch the three-finger salute and told her to read between the lines. But it was worth the hundreds of snarling retorts I swallowed or pre-empted to see how my sons have grown into young men who stand up for themselves assertively, civilly, often with humor, and often stepping in to defend those who struggle as they did (and do).

Consider too that silence can be an eloquent comeback. Not every remark or stare is worthy of your response. I truly did not care (still don't) about the opinions of strangers in public, people I didn't know and would never see again, people who had no understanding--and in many cases, no desire to understand--the factors leading up to the moment in time where our paths intersected. The famous journalist H. L. Mencken employed a single response to all critics and hecklers: "Dear Sir or Madam: You may be right."

As I write this, Bryce is finishing an essay for a college writing class, laying out the elements of what he considers an ideal education. The teaching of self-advocacy and respectful interpersonal communication skills, he argues, is as important as any academic subject. Our advocacy for our child with autism educates others. In setting the tone of that discourse, especially in front of our children, we sow the seeds of their own brand of self- advocacy. Corrosive or constructive? We mustn't allow comebacks to become setbacks. If there were to be an all-purpose retort, perhaps it's that "We're all still learning."

Award-winning author and mother of sons with ADHD and autism, Ellen Notbohm's books and articles have informed and delighted millions in more than nineteen languages. Her work has won a Silver Medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, a ForeWord Book of Year Honorable Mention and two finalist designations, Learning magazine's Teacher's Choice Award, two iParenting Media awards, and an Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist designation. She is a contributor to numerous publications, classrooms, conferences and websites worldwide. See www.ellennotbohm.com for more.

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