False Blame

  • Posted on July 31, 2011 at 5:16 AM

This post is in response to Rachel’s recent post at Journeys With Autism about taking care when expressing our experiences of disability. Her post was, in turn, a response to another blogger.

While I’m not going to try to touch on everything Rachel covered (It’s a good post, and I highly recommend you check it out.) there’s a particular passage that got me thinking about an issue that’s been a concern of mine for a long time.

It all started with this:

My concerns on this score only increase when Ms. Baird launches into some of the most fear-inducing words about autism that I have ever read:

Autism is where marriages and parenting partnerships come to die on the rocks of exhaustion, despair and blind self-interest. Autism wears down families, severs familial bonds with sharp and bitter recriminations, blame and guilt.

I absolutely cannot tolerate it when people indulge in these kinds of generalizations about a condition that exists on a very, very wide spectrum. I understand and have compassion for Ms. Baird’s experience, but it is her experience. Yes, it is an experience shared by other families, but it is by no means the universal experience of autism.

I highly recommend reading Rachel’s post, because she makes some very important points that are specific to autism, and apply more generally to discourse on disabilities. However, in this post, I would like to address this from a perspective beyond autism and beyond disability. Simply put, what Ms. Baird is experiencing within the context of the quoted passage has nothing to do, specifically, with autism.

For those immersed in the world of parenting an autistic child, this may seem counterintuitive. After all, those of us with autistic children, especially children with “severe” autism, know it’s almost always challenging, often exhausting, and very, very stressful. But that’s just it. It’s not autism that wears down families, severs familial bonds, or creates blame and guilt. It’s stress. More specifically, it’s our poor or inadequate reactions to stress that have these consequences.

Stop and think about it for a moment. If autism were the cause, then we’d only be seeing these effects in families with autism. But that’s not the case. Nor is it the case that we only see these effects in families with disabled children. No. We see these effects in families that are impacted by a wide variety of stressors, and currently one of the most notable stressors is finances. How many parents have killed their children or their whole families in reaction to financial crises? I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count. How many more succumb to abusive behaviors? How many people have walked away from their marriages and their children because they lost their jobs, because they couldn’t pay their bills, because they were going to lose their home? Is anyone even counting?

Sure, some families with autistic children experience exactly what Ms. Baird described. But so do families with no autistic children. Autism is not the cause. We have a tendency, as parents of children with autism, to falsely blame autism for our struggles and our challenges. We blame autism for experiences that we think are, at least to some degree, exclusive to ourselves and our “kind,” because we get so caught up in autism that we fail to see our similarities to others outside of ourselves.

People can, and frequently do, react badly to stress. These reactions are to stress, or the experience of being stressed. The cause of that stress is, for the most part, irrelevant when the issue is our reactions to that stress. There are many causes, and there are many reactions; but the causes do NOT dictate the reactions.

What is the difference between the mother who kills her child because her child is autistic and the father who kills his child because he’s broke? Certainly the first evokes great concerns about the perception of autism and disability in this country; certainly the later evokes great concerns about the psychological effects of our economic downturn. But, despite these differences, both are tragedies; both involve the deaths of innocent children at the hands of their stressed-out parents; both are bad reactions to stress.

I’m not a psychologist, a sociologist or an anthropologist. I cannot tell you how different or unusual this reaction is from reactions to stress over hundreds or thousands of years of human society. I’m just a mom. I’m a mom who looks at my kids and is horrified at the thought of a parent willfully killing their own children. It’s outrageous. It’s horrifying. And it’s happening. It’s not just happening to autistic kids. It’s not just happening to kids that are disabled or sick. The phenomenon is bigger than a single stressor. It’s bigger than autism. It’s bigger than disability. I see this and I can’t help but think that something has gone very, very wrong. For all I know this has always happened. I don’t know. But, even if this is some sort of incomprehensible “normal,” it’s wrong. It’s just wrong.

When I brought this up in a briefer form on Rachel’s post, she evoked the word “support.” For those of us within the autism community, support is a major buzzword. It’s a major buzzword in the greater disability community as well. My question is this: why isn’t support a major buzzword in the community at large? The concept of support is not exclusive to disability. We all need support. We all need community support; in fact, that’s the reason why communities exist.

Families disintegrate due to stress, or rather due to poor reactions to stress. The nature of the stress is not what needs to be fixed. There are too many stressors in the world to fix them all. If it wasn’t autism, it could be poor finances; if it wasn’t finances, it could be something else. The cause of the stressor isn’t the problem. The problem is how we respond to the stress. If people get the support they need, I believe responses would improve—again, I’m neither a sociologist nor a psychologist, so my statement is intuitive not factual. My point is that blaming the stressor does not get you the support you need. You cannot choose whether or not your child has autism. You cannot choose whether or not you’re laid off. You can choose how you respond. You can choose to let your family disintegrate. You can choose to take them out with a shotgun. You can also choose to cope, to get support, to reach out, to build community, to help and be helped.

That choice has nothing to do with autism. You can lay the blame for all your woes at autism’s anthropomorphized feet if you’d like, but it won’t do you or anyone else any good. How you deal with the stressors in your life is your choice and your responsibility. Choose wisely.

5 Comments on False Blame

  1. Rachel says:

    Great post, Stephanie. I wholeheartedly agree.

    One of the things that gets lost in discussions about parents who harm their children is the issue of shared individual and communal responsibility. Yes, there should be more support for parents — for everyone — no question. The world throws plenty of unnecessary stumbling blocks before the blind. So when a parent harms a child, the society should look at itself and ask, “What are the impediments we placed in the way of the parent that made it so difficult to make good choices? How can lessen the chances of such things happening again?” But that does not absolve the parent of responsibility because, as you say, there are always stressors, and we can’t choose the things that befall us in life. Part of being an ethical person is making the right decisions when things are difficult. And blaming a lack of support ignores the fact that there are people going through hell on earth who still make humane, ethical choices.

    I especially dislike the trend toward blaming mental illness when children are harmed, because it makes abuse of children some sort of sickness to be treated, rather calling it the evil it is, and it unfairly stigmatizes people with mental illness who do an excellent job of raising kids every day.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Hi Stephaine..I have been taking a break from the blogosphere for a while.. Great post-thank you. The same exact paragraph jumped out at me when I read Rachel’s post. I believe that you are right-families can disintegrate because of stress…I also think that some marriages aren’t strong to begin with. In other words-things are great only when things are great. It is easy to blame other things. I was appalled last year when two different stories hit the news-about mothers killing their autistic children. There was no mention of mental illness on the mothers part..and there was no mention of the fact that a child was killed. It was all about autism. There were some groups that even used this as a platform-exclaiming that this was going to happen over and over until something was done. In many places-autism has become a thing..displacing the human being who happens to be autistic. I find that scary.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Kathleen,

    I certainly understand about taking a break. Summers can be rough when the “herd” is at home 24/7.

    It is horrifying the way autism is villified to not only justify murdering children, but also to justify abusing children through “treatments” or aborting them because autism is, in their minds, some sort of malevolent force that must be battled to the death. It’s terrifying how eugenics lingers on and on and on.

  4. Mom says:

    Well stated Stephanie! People handle stess differently, some with bad results, some with good results, and no one handles every thing the same. It is something inside each of us, or the lack there of, that determines how we handle different stressful situations.

    Autism is a spectrum disorder, just as stress has different spectrums or levels. Some people handle high stress situations very well, some people get stressed over every little thing. But in our society we love the words blame and fault – if we can blame someone else it’s not “our” fault. Some want to “blame” autism, some want to “blame” parents, some want to “blame” society in general, but it’s usually a combination of everything. And it’s usually a combination of everyone working together to help solve the issues, rather than placing blame, that gets the best results for all concerned!

    Old saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”, and that is true – and it takes a larger village to raise a child with autism. And some parents need a larger village!

  5. Stephanie says:

    Thank you, Mom. You said it well yourself, too!

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