Autism: Reason or Excuse?

Published on December 26, 2012 by in News

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Is autism the reason for your child’s behaviors and difficulties — or an excuse? A fine but critical distinction for some, a tough confrontational question for others. Following a lively discussion on my Twitter feed(EllenNotbohm), I offer the following excerpt from Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, updated and expanded edition (2012).

Reason or excuse?

Neither you nor your child had a choice about his autism, and autism may indeed be the reason for some of your child’s behaviors and learning difficulties. But letting it become an excuse will handicap him more surely than autism itself. There’s a difference between a reason and an excuse: reason explains the fact of a problem or situation, while an excuse attempts to justify, usually through denial or deception.

At graduation, Bryce received wonderful letters of encouragement from all his teachers. The one that most stood out to me came from his English teacher, who herself has ADD, dyslexia—and two master’s degrees. She advised, “You are going to have to work harder, longer and smarter than your friends in order to survive. Get over it now and start getting stuff done!”

A small Halloween incident at our house a few years ago brings this into focus. A princess-costumed trick-or-treater renounced our candy offering with, “I don’t like Skittles!” And, sneering at the Tootsie Rolls, she whined, “What are those? I don’t like them either.”

The incident appalled me, but many of my Facebook readers weren’t at all concerned, responding like this: The child might have been on the spectrum. We all know that spectrum kids have no filters. Yeah, my spectrum kid might have done the same. They call it like they see it. Laugh it off; it’s her parent’s problem, not yours.

This astonished me. It hadn’t crossed my mind that the child might be on the spectrum because her behavior was rude, period. Being an outspoken, filterless spectrum child may be a reason for such behavior, but it’s no excuse. I related the incident to a group of professionals that included teachers, health workers and clergy. In sharp contrast to the parent group, they found the girl’s behavior not amusing or excusable, but alarming. They extrapolated the behavior, if uncurbed, down the developmental timeline. Imagine the impact of such behavior at birthday parties . . . holidays . . . as a houseguest . . . as a member of a team or club . . . in the workplace.

Most often when we raise an excuse, we do it deliberately and often with considerable forethought. Much more subtle and perhaps subliminal is the thought process that can lead us to evoke our child’s autism as an excuse to forego teaching. In the most loving families and the most experienced teachers, we see examples of it at every stage of childhood. It happens when parents or teachers treat their child or student with autism as something other than a full member of the family or classroom, with developmentally appropriate responsibilities to others. It happens when we allow the child a sense of entitlement, rather than teaching from an early age the concept of earning, be it privileges or money. We see it when we defer teaching mundane but essential daily life skills either out of pity or out of impatience for the length of the teaching process (“she’s so slow/doesn’t do it right; it’s easier and quicker to do it myself”).

And we see a very sad story in the making if we use our child’s autism as an excuse to avoid the harder conversations that come as adulthood approaches and the stakes get higher, conversations about things like sex and drinking, where one mistake can have devastating long term consequences.

The irony of the reason-versus-excuse counterpoint is that a concrete-thinking child with autism learns responsibility-avoidant behavior from the people around him, when his own natural inclination would be toward fact. I saw this in Bryce throughout high school, when he learned to identify the cause of a less than optimal result without self-incrimination or denial, and use it as a stepping stone to a better result next time. Of a poor test result, he might say, “I didn’t allow myself enough time to study.” Or, “I didn’t understand the assignment and I should have asked the teacher to explain further.” For his parents and his teachers, ensuring his future as a self-sufficient adult was all the reason we needed to disavow and disallow excuses.

© 2012 Ellen Notbohm
excerpted from Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, updated and expanded edition (2012)

Contact the author for permission to reproduce in any way, including posting on the Internet. www.ellennotbohm.com

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