Moving beyond “typical”: Social skills through social justice

I took my children out today, for most of the day. Even at 9 and 10, this is a crapshoot that requires careful observation, positive reinforcement, and downright bribery to survive. The plan was to start with brunch, head to a children’s storytelling performance, followed by our participation in SlutWalk Toronto. Optimistically, I hoped to also squeeze a trip to the grocery store in there, but I suspected even this morning that would be pushing it.

Having spent more than half of the last decade identifying as the parent of a (and then two) child(ren) with autism, I can say that the majority of parents I know with kids on the spectrum would not dream of taking their child to a protest.

1) It’s LOUD, with drums and whistles, and sirens, and chants. The ambient noise is overwhelming for some folks who don’t generally have sensory overload issues, but it can be that much harder for those whose perception of sound is magnified.

2) It’s CROWDED. There is no such thing as personal space when you’re in the middle of a wave of hundreds of people walking down the middle of a closed-off street.

3) It’s UNPREDICTABLE. Sure, the path is set, and the chants don’t change a lot from year to year, cause to cause, but no one knows *when* someone will screech into a megaphone. No one knows when the crowd will stop, then start walking again.

A lot of other parents would see this as too much. For their kids, for them, period. If they wanted to attend, they’d arrange for one parent to stay at home with the child or arrange childcare. Or they just wouldn’t come, “sacrificing” one more part of their identity outside of being an autism parent.

Many parents choose structured social skills classes/groups for their kids. Some groups are just kids on the autism spectrum (generally “high functioning”), while others are half spectrum, half “typical” children. The intention is to teach kids with autism how to fit in with prescribed societal notions of normal.

I get that. I desperately want nothing more than for my kids to feel like they have a place in this world. Where I differ from a lot of folks is that I want them to have that place on their terms, just as they would if their brains were more commonly wired. So I show them my world. I bring them with me to events that matter to me, and explain why they matter. I encourage them to share their opinions, even (and especially) when they disagree with me. I model respectful communication with them, and expect them to mirror back the same.

So. SlutWalk.

The kids commented on the crowd, and were surprised when I saw someone I knew within seconds of hitting the grass at Queen’s Park. The boy was entranced by the signage, the girl by the puppies. They both wanted to know if the police officer who had recommended that women not dress like sluts was going to be in attendance, because they had a bone to pick with him. The boy read a sign aloud at one point: “‘How to prevent rape: Stop raping.’ Well, duh. Of course people are still going to get raped if the people raping don’t stop.” He commented on a lot of the signs, asked questions, and loved the energy the written words brought to the event. I explained patriarchy to them as we walked down College Street, and then explained my explanation. They asked questions about sexual violence, police treatment of survivors, and why so many people care so much about this issue.

I freely admit to having bribed them with a reward trip to the candy store at the end of the route if they chose to stay with the walk, and when they hit their limit of loud, we took our leave.

One other thing I should mention about today: over brunch, the girl talked about an issue at school that she identified as unfair to an entire group of students. Several of them have complained to their teachers about the issue, but have been brushed off. She was feeling unheard, and without power. I asked her how many kids felt the same way as she did. She gave me a pretty significant number. I talked about how other people have addressed inequities that might be effective for this situation: talking to the teachers again, talking with the vice/principal, petitions, organizing classmates to work collectively to create the change they want to see. She now has a concrete plan to approach the problem, and a concrete example of how to bring peaceful attention to an unjust situation.

I don’t want typical kids. I want the extraordinary ones I’ve got.


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