Saskatchewan·Point of View

As an autistic parent to an autistic child, I implore you: accept us

This autism awareness month, Dela McDonald encourages people to better include autistic people in society.

We represent one neurological type in a beautifully neurodiverse world

An illustration of Ru, done by her mother, Dela McDonald. Ru, like her mother, has autism. (Dela McDonald)

As an autistic parent to a child with classic, non-verbal autism, I'm here to tell you: it's OK. We're OK.

We are not a damaged version of a "normal" brain. We are conceived autistic, born autistic, and we will live our entire lives autistic. There is no non-autistic child hiding beneath the autistic one.

You see, the line between her autism and my autism is non-existent. There are certain things I cannot do, and the ability to pass as non-autistic can even be a detriment to me, because it masks my struggles. I am a valuable — even productive — member of society, and I also have support needs.

We grow and learn to adapt, but the way we are wired and the way that we think will remain a constant. We represent one facet of the human condition, one neurological type in a beautifully neurodiverse world.

Dela McDonald draws comics featuring her daughter to help explain autism to people. (Submitted by Dela McDonald)

You may be surprised to know that we are a fairly large minority. In Canada, an estimated one in 66 children ages five to 17 have been diagnosed.

And many of us are proud of the way our brains work! Without this uniquely autistic ability to focus and systemize, it's unlikely that Alan Turing, BBC's Person of the Year, would have invented the predecessor to the computer and cracked the enigma code that helped end the Second World War. It's unlikely that many other innovations in art, science and technology would have come about. We're over-represented in creative and research fields.

And as a parent to a child who will likely need some degree of support her whole life, I can say with absolute certainty that I don't wish for a cure.

Something does desperately need to change, but it's not her. It's the way we think about autism, and disability as a whole.

The world is not arranged with us in mind. Herein lies the problem of autism being an invisible disability. The very things that make a community often don't consider accessibility beyond the wheelchair ramp.

McDonald says therapies offered to autistic people are typically based on the principles of Ole Ivar Lovaas's Applied Behaviour Analysis. She says they are often intended to teach autistic children to mask the behaviours that they use to regulate their thoughts, bodies and emotions. (Submitted by Dela McDonald)

Our needs aren't complicated, either. Often it comes down to noise, lighting, clear communication, and the ability to move about freely without judgement.

The therapies that we're handed upon diagnosis, typically based on the principles of Ivar Lovaas's Applied Behaviour Analysis, or ABA, are often intended to teach autistic children to mask the behaviours that they use to regulate their thoughts, bodies and emotions. 

Much of the information that is common knowledge about autism doesn't come from autistic people. It is created by people employed in a field that seeks to make us seem "indistinguishable from our peers." This same field does little to address a person's needs once they reach adulthood, including rampant underemployment and mental health challenges.

There are autistic people working tirelessly to create better lives for all autistic people. They were once the children being told to sit still, be quiet, and put the square peg in the square hole to earn a fraction of a candy. They're the adults who weren't diagnosed as children and struggled without supports. They are advocates, and not surprisingly, often parents to autistic children themselves.

The voices of a community should be considered the foremost experts on the needs of the individuals within it. That is why, during this month of "autism awareness," I urge you to go a step further. Accept us. Accept that we exist, accept that we can speak for ourselves, and accept that we will always be here.

See our strengths and lean into our interests. Connect us with our community and other people who think like we do. Open your mind to the feelings, thoughts and experiences of others who may not think like you. That is, after all, the very basis of empathy.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ


Dela McDonald is an autistic parent of three beautiful children, partner to an urban cowboy, full-time student, part-time pug wrangler, and semi-professional doodler. You can find those doodles on Facebook and Instagram at @hvppyhands.


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