The first time I met an autistic child, I was sixteen. I was working at my first job after school and my boss’s son was three years old. The boy wore a knit winter hat with a swinging yarn tassel in the summertime while riding his tricycle in circles. He spoke few words and had constant tantrums. When he learned to say “squaffit cone”, his mother would stop whatever she was doing in order to take him to the ice cream shop for a chocolate cone. His words were precious and must be rewarded. The young mother gradually developed lavender smears under her eyes and an invisible cloud of exhaustion which hovered around her like a halo. I felt pity for this woman and wondered what she had done to cause her child to have autism.
Several years later I asked someone who knew the family if the boy had yet recovered.
I grew up in the seventies and eighties. The myth of the refrigerator mother, the predominant wisdom that autism was caused by the emotional detachment and neglectful parenting of mothers, had been debunked. But memes don’t disappear instantly even when evidence should eliminate their existence. Several of my favorite books as a teenager had been about children, who after suffering motherly abuse and emotional neglect, became autistic. They were always heroically rescued and returned to normalcy after the efforts of their kindhearted teacher miraculously cured them.
When my oldest son was diagnosed with autism, it felt like pay-back for my past ignorance. Out of the corner of my eye, I was often certain that I could see Irony laughing maliciously at me, a gargoyle who refused to budge. Before I had a child, I had been selfish and ignorant. After my son was born, I felt I floundered miserably as a mother. Beliefs do not uproot easily from the dense, tangled complexities of the mind once firmly planted.
I was one of the millions of parents who struggled in the beginning of the rapid increase of autism throughout the world. Unlike the mothers of the 1950’s, we were no longer blamed by society and our children were not institutionalized and forgotten. But human nature searches for a reason. It lusts for something to blame. An explanation to solve the mystery or a curse to quiet the gargoyles. We also possess an ego, which enables us to believe that answers are simplistic and easily within an individual’s grasp. However, in a multiple choice question, one should remember to eliminate the answers which contain the words always and never. There are the shades of gray in the middle which contain equally valid truth.
I have no answers and I am not a scientist. I am a mother who loves her children. In my personal journey parenting two autistic children, I have found the whispers and sneers of strangers easy to ignore with experience and learned to find the mind of an autistic person fascinating and worthy of deep respect. Without autism, I don’t believe we would have the theories of Einstein, the art and science of DaVinci, or the computer revolution created by Bill Gates. Without the creativity of the autistic mind, we would still be animals in caves. It was the guy alone in a corner rubbing sticks together who unlocked the mystery of fire. The one fascinated with spinning who unlocked the power of the wheel. A dash of autism is a gift to mankind and we all propel along with the knowledge they discover while most snicker at their odd behavior. Like adding a spice to a recipe, sometimes autism is too predominant an ingredient and the individual suffers with severely impaired functioning. Other times, the mixture is perfect and the rest of us eat hungrily of the ingenious outcome.
But when a celebrity comes out in the guise of a savior who possesses the knowledge to cure based on pseudo-science and conjecture, it is maddening. Jenny McCarthy is a self- proclaimed “mother warrior” who states that she will not settle for her son’s supposed autism and has spear-headed an organization called Generation Rescue. In doing so, she implicitly implies that those of us who mother children on the autism spectrum have settled for a deficiency which could be eliminated if we possessed her dedication and unquestioning belief in sketchy, unproven science. Public figures who exploit their children to further their own sense of superiority, set us all back fifty years. They return us yet again to the time when autism was a condition that exists because of inadequate mothering. My children and all autistics are a gift. Not just to their parents and those lucky enough to know them, but to the whole of society. There is no antidote for genius, no inoculation against boundless creativity. Jenny McCarthy should think deeply into what she seeks to cure. The pseudo-science which defined the refrigerator mother has metamorphosed into that of the warrior mother. I am neither and require no special label.