The Problem with the Parent Narative

I need to begin this piece with a disclaimer. I’m writing about an extremely sensitive subject that affects a number of my readers, that of the narrative of the parent of an autistic child. I’m going to get very critical of the media as I write this, which could easily be misinterpreted as criticism of the parents. I am not in any way trying to do that. In fact I strongly encourage such parents to share their stories and to be as loud as they can be. I’m also not in anyway attacking support groups for parents to be clear. Those are a must. My issue is with the media, not you.

There’s a hard truth in blogging. Just because you cover a topic once doesn’t mean you’ve said all you have to say. In truth you sometimes have to reexamine an issue and get more specific. Such is the case with this entry. I wrote on the topic of how autistic narratives are filtered through other perspectives last year in a solid entry. I stand by everything I said in this but I’ve come to realize I just missed the mark in saying what I needed to say. 

For while there might occasionally be a depiction of us as a potential love interest (though never successful so far save for rare exceptions) or a friend, we usually appear in the story of a parent who discovers their child is autistic and must deal with it. This narrative appears in film, TV, books, and even manga. This is our narrative that we get trapped in, much as the gay community gets the coming out narrative or Christians get conversion stories as the most common trope. 

The narrative is common for a perfectly good reason. It’s the one that’s the most relatable for Neurotypicals and it’s hardly untrue. My own mother could’ve written a version that would be well worth reading. If this was one of many tropes in the media depiction of autism I wouldn’t be bothered. 

Here’s the issue: it’s not. What we’re getting, especially from Autism Speaks and groups like them, is this single story. Occasionally we get it from a parent a few years into dealing with the matter but almost without fail this is what we get when we get a story about autism. It’s the only one anybody seems interested in. 

This is a problem because this story isn’t really a story about autism. It’s about parenting. It’s about how a parent deals with a child who seems to be a blank slate they can’t understand. Over time they learn to reach this distant alien they spawned. The child, and make no mistake adult autism is invisible, is a prop with no power in their story. Their thoughts and feelings are irrelevant next to the parent’s. 

This is a very serious problem for us because this trope influences how others see us. When we don’t play an active role in our own stories, then the notion that we don’t have an inner life is reinforced. After all, nobody ever hears about our thoughts and feelings. They just know our parents are affected and ultimately learn from this ordeal. 

Saying that fiction, though this trope shows up a lot in sappy memoirs, influences thought might be a leap but it’s really not. We are influenced by what we see. Shows like Will and Grace and Modern Family, stereotypical as they are, normalized homosexuality for many. We don’t have that outlet. Our closest representative is Sheldon Cooper, who is both undiagnosed and a disgusting cartoon of autism who suggests to the viewer that we really might not function in society. Seriously we are not well represented.

And that has to change. I think it has to start by moving past the parent narrative. It’s a trope that has helped but I think it’s time to start focusing on the autistic community itself. We have bold, vibrant voices ready to speak. We would love to tell our stories. We just need the chance.

So I encourage future writers to realize that if you’re looking to tell a story about autism, don’t take the easy route. Go inside our heads. Try to put us at the center. We don’t live to teach others a lesson. We live the same lives you do. 

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