Category Archives: special needs kids

Person First Language… An Ode to Incindiary T-Shirts

Yesterday I wore one of my very favorite t-shirts. It says “Autistic Kids ROCK”.

Now, I love this shirt for several reasons, foremost among them: I love a pun!

But, even better yet, it engenders the most fascinating reactions. While positive commentary is always nice, the negative reactions are FABULOUS. Because, let’s face it, if a stranger disagrees with your t-shirt enough to comment on it in public, you get to know exactly where they stand. And sometimes, in rare and beautiful moments, you get to have a dialogue where everyone grows a little.

Now, it so happens, that while running errands in said shirt, with two autists in tow, our cashier at Rite-Aid just couldn’t help himself.
“I LOVE your shirt!” says he.
“But… well… shouldn’t it really say ‘kids with autism’?”
My Jules was super quick with the “yeah, no”.
So here we are, in a super crowded store, where I have the opportunity for a teaching moment (and enough purchases to take the time without fellow shoppers attempting to stone me) and my kid has basically insisted that I get in it. So, *deep breath*

“We don’t like person first language, it implies that autism is not integral to their personalities. Someone HAS a cold, not autism. It also implies that I, or they, would change their autism if we could; but that would change them, and I love them hard just like this.
Or, maybe easier to understand: I have green eyes, I don’t have woman-ness. On is incidental the other integral to my personality and my relationship to the world.”
“Did I get that right, Jules?” *nodding ensues*

Well, now our twenty-something friend has that mind-blown expression on his face.
He told us that he just never thought about it that way, that “this changes everything”. Then we learned that his little brother is an autist, and he wished he had thought about this sooner.
We talked a little about better-late-than-never-at-all.

And then another question. “But, I have heard people talk about preferring person first language! What do I do about that?”

Ah, differences!

What do we do? We communicate.
I attend meetings regularly where everyone attendant is asked their preferences – for name, pronoun, gender, ect. ect. ect.
This is a brave new world, and if we want to do right by people, we should just ASK.
Our new cashier-friend gave me the funniest compliment then. He called me “so enlightened for my generation”. I laughed REALLY loud.

So what’s the conclusion here?
We can not talk about disenfranchised groups as though they are discrete from each other. People of different colors, abilities, orientations, identities, economic strata… everyone non-normative in any fashion, have this in common: THEY know what makes them comfortable. And we are capable of asking and then honoring them.

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Don’t do anything they tell you to.

10 years ago at this time I was the young mother of only 4 children. We were going through the excruciating process of getting child number 3 diagnosed (PDD-NOS, which I know is no longer a thing) and beginning to get her some help. I was homeschooling her 2 older brothers and her younger brother was just learning how to walk.

The professional in charge of our school district’s special education department had a lot of advice for me; you see their team was full of folks with master’s degrees and Doctorates, and I was just a stay at home mom with a high school diploma. It was advised that I put my older boys in school asap, enroll the girl in EEE, and have a troop of therapists ect. come to our house on a daily basis to work with her.

My response?  “But there are 6 of us, the whole family cannot revolve around one child!” They however believed it should. Afraid that my other children would resent their sister (and eventually me), I went my own way, ignoring most of what I was advised, and feeling in turns guilty, terrified, and glad every day since.

This week my number 1 son turned 16. He celebrated with me and his 5 siblings. He laughed at private jokes with his now “highly functioning” sister. He offered me a hug. He played video games with his youngest (non verbal) brother. Everyone was included, no resentment was evident, and the high needs kids were in the thick of it even without the benefit of thousands of hours of therapies that I refused for them. It’s a lovely thing to behold when this family thing is working.

So, I offer you this, the only parenting advice I shall ever give:

We all have different stories, different needs, different priorities. But when you look at your child what does your heart tell you to do? Because only a parent knows what their child needs, knows what is best for their family, knows what they are willing to risk or sacrifice. I have faith that you know what is best for your kids, you should have faith in that too.

And never do anything just because “they” told you to.