Retrospective Edit (June 2019):
I wrote this original post from a very hurt place. The person who said something offhand about my daughter–a comment I was not meant to hear–was not the source of my hurt in this moment. I’ve done a lot of work since then, and so I need to alter this blog to say:
I advocate for my kid by reflecting and working on myself.
I also need to say that what I thought was a toned down, loving way of addressing this person’s judgmental comment was actually quite aggressive and disrespectful. My central mistake was not asking them when was a good time to talk, and processing my feelings enough to be able to talk directly. From the end of the wonderful book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson PsyD, I gathered the following advice on how to not be a jerk:
When I am irritated with someone, I’ll think about what I could say to improve the relationship. I’ll wait until I cool off and then ask if the other person is willing to listen to my feelings.
I won’t expect people to know what I need unless I tell them. Caring about me doesn’t mean they automatically know what I’m feeling.
If people close to me upset me, I’ll use my pain to identify an underlying need. Then I’ll use clear, intimate communication to provide guidance on how they could fulfill that need.
When my feelings are hurt I’ll try to understand my reaction first. It it is a trigger from my past, or is their action really insensitive? If it’s insensitive, I’ll ask them to hear me out.
I’ll be thoughtful, and if they aren’t thoughtful in return, I’ll ask them to be and then let it go.
Here is the original post, which I’m keeping because it was an essential step in getting to the realization that this pain is my internal work. And because I know other parents in neurodiverse families have been here, and I know other unschooling families have been here:
I was going to title this “how to advocate for your autistic kid.” Then, “how to advocate for your kid who’s different” since autism isn’t the only thing making kids get bullying comments from kids and adults. But as soon as I wrote that I realized: all kids are different. All kids need advocates.
The holidays have been a roller coaster to say the least. If you are unschooling an autistic kid and the holidays are not a roller coaster, you’re pretty lucky. There were some really wonderful moments, and I still love Christmas. But my holidays ended with a trusted family member saying something hurtful about my kid.
I can’t say my response is perfect, but after some work on self-compassion, mindfulness, and non-violent communication, it’s a lot better than it would have been a year ago. So here goes:
How to Advocate for your Kid*
*For situations when someone says something hurtful to you, not within earshot of your kid.
1) Someone says something hurtful along the lines of “if only you the parent would do x, y, and z, your kid would be more typical.” As if being typical were the goal, or even a worthy goal. As if you haven’t tried that. As if you haven’t heard that before. As if you didn’t know anything about parenting, child development, education, or autism.
2) Run away. Probably best not to explode in the moment. (Unless you are a really calm and collected debater, and this is an IEP meeting.) In other words, find space and take time to feel your feelings.
3) Once you’ve found space and some time, cry. Rage, but find the grief and pain under the anger. For me, it’s the loneliness of discovering someone I thought I trusted doesn’t have enough respect to learn and ask questions about my parenting or my kid before passing judgment.
4) Try a meditation, or at least just breathe and observe the world around you that is unaffected by other people’s judgment (well, the beauty of our natural world is certainly affected by our president’s poor judgment here in the US, but still, there’s beauty). Feel the rage and sadness fully.
5) Pull out the wallet card you wrote, on Brené Brown’s advice, listing the five people whose judgment you truly care about. Remind yourself that you don’t care about this other person’s judgment.
6) Process with someone you trust. Someone who can listen, not judge your emotions, provide you with a reality check if needed, and most importantly be trusted.
7) Try writing out your feelings and your first enraged, sarcastic response just for you. Write in a journal or on scrap paper. Someone hurt you and demeaned your kid, so take all the desire to hurt them back and let it out safely. If you don’t journal, punch a pillow. Rip paper.
8) Ground yourself in your own confidence. Look back on your reasons for parenting the way you do, watch your kid and how wonderful they are and how much they’ve learned and how they experience the world. Know that you are doing your best.
9) Think about what this person means in your life. If it’s a passing stranger or someone you see casually once a year, don’t bother with much more than processing. If, however, they are a big part of your life in some way, and journaling didn’t resolve your feelings, considering bringing this up. Consider whether they have gaslighted or dismissed you in the past–if so, don’t bother with the energy it takes to confront them, and simply try to create distance. Someone who criticizes you and then, when you tell them you’re hurt, says they “didn’t mean it that way” and “you’re too sensitive” and “it was just a joke” and “well I’m right” isn’t safe for you. (If it’s a teacher or some person you didn’t choose who has power over you, that might mean expressing concerns to a supervisor). However, if this is someone who means a lot, and their comment is an instance of ableism that you think they can learn from, consider opening up communication in the spirit of love and learning.
10) If you choose to respond, start with the loving reasons why. Start with love, respect, and why you want to invest energy in helping this person learn. Why you are confident they respect you and want to hear you out. Why you trust them.
11) While you’ve been hurt, the emotional pain is probably about the 100+ other times someone has said something similar. Address how ableism is bigger than just that person. Explain what a healthier relationship might look like between you, your kid, and this person.
12) End with confidence, as an advocate for your child. Explain that this is a role you’re proud to take.
13) Let go of the response. This letter, email, or conversation is for you and your child. You can’t change everyone, but you can stand tall and know you are always there to support your kid. Know that modelling advocacy is the best way to teach self-advocacy.
14) Make space to just be with your kid, and not have to do this all the time. They deserve peace and so do you.