Human Beings in Disguise

May I skip the well-crafted introduction and get straight to my rant?

I recognize that my heart strings aren’t easily tugged by the typical tear-jerker messages about children and puppies and rainbows and dreams, so I try to let others enjoy them and keep my comments to myself. Bumper stickers, inspirational posters, Facebook messages, and e-cards are all written with the best of intentions, I’m sure. But there’s a fine line between touchy-feely and condescending – a line that Autism websites and newsletters dance quite often. Here’s the latest offender:

“Children with Autism are angels in disguise on earth.”

I saw this on the Autism Awareness Facebook page. More than 16,000 people “liked” this post. More than 11,000 people shared it, which means all of their friends saw it, sending this condescending message to an exponentially larger number of people, who will likely share it as well …  again, I’m sure, with the best of intentions.

What in the world does this message even mean? These words reek of pity, as if to say, “It must be awful not to be normal! So awful that only an angel could withstand it!” Angels conjure images of heaven and peace – an eternal reward for surviving this life – easing our conscience and any feelings of guilt (and show me the parent of a child with Autism who doesn’t feel guilty at some point every day). I get where this message is coming from, but all it does is set our children apart (and not in a good way).

Making children on the spectrum angels and the rest of us human beings is just one more way of saying “they’re not like us.” And let’s face it, we’re only considered normal because we’re in the majority. So we script our children with what they’re expected to say and teach them the expressions other people expect to see in order to make the rest of us comfortable. But don’t think for a moment that those rote responses and forced smiles make them comfortable.

I’ll never forget the time our son sat at the dinner table saying, “Mmmm, yummy” just before he threw up the peas we cajoled him into eating. He knew what he was supposed to say and what he was supposed to do, but none of that changed how he felt.

Let your child be your hero or your inspiration for spending every day fighting her/his own nature and working so hard to blend in with the rest of us. Call her tenacious. Call him fearless. But don’t call them “angels in disguise.” Because maybe if we start seeing what they have in common with the rest of us, the world will stop seeing only their differences.

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