31 Dec
Autistic or Not: How to have an armchair chitchat

Dear Mouthy Housewives,

A group of us suspect that a girlfriend’s kid may be autistic, or at the very least have some major sensory processing issues, and it’s becoming more apparent as our children get older.   However, it is also apparent that both parents are in some sort of deep denial and use comedy to brush off some of the child’s behaviors. It doesn’t seem very fair to the child and we fear the longer it isn’t addressed, the longer the child goes without help.

Is there an appropriate way to approach a friend/another parent about this without hurting feelings or overstepping boundaries?


Dear Concerned,

I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on the Internet. However, I am a mom raising an eccentric kid, which means I not only have real-life experience with the autism/sensory question but I’m also highly qualified in the medicinal use of vodka martinis. (For myself, of course.)

First off, I don’t see the problem with using comedy to brush off some of the child’s behaviors.   From your friend’s perspective (and certainly mine), humor may be the only thing keeping her from eating paper, sniffing glue, and making homely pottery in a convalescence home.

Second, tread carefully with armchair diagnoses. Dr. Google, along with his hunchback assistant, Media Hype, has an entire generation of parents hyper-aware and fearful of any variations in childhood behavior.   We’ve become a society dependent on illness and disorders.

Besides, what Dr. Google (or professional doctors, for that matter) won’t tell you is that many of these same behaviors can also be signs of high intelligence and advanced creativity. Contrary to Media Hype, giftedness in young children doesn’t always show itself in the way of a 2-year-old playing Mozart or reading Beowulf.

For some children it can show in the way of a 4-year-old freaking out over noises or reacting as if button-waist pants are tools of the Devil sent to earth so we mothers can work his evil by making our child wear chinos.

But it could be your friend’s child isn’t a future (insert your favorite genius) and possibly has a developmental problem.   The next time the child’s issues become apparent might be a good opportunity to ask the mom if she’s discussed any of the problems with the child’s pediatrician, and then let her take the lead in the conversation.

Either way, parenting a child who doesn’t follow the APA-approved developmental timeline is no day at the spa. Unless you’re getting 100 simultaneous Brazilian wax jobs, then it possibly compares.

Parents like us need positive support, not an intervention. We need to know the differing perspectives of atypical child behavior, not just the disordered ones, which means a lot of reading and researching both sides of the coin. That way insight can’t be confused with denial and we can speak with doctors and teachers as informed parents.

But most of all, we need the people around us to believe in the potential of our child.

Heather, TMH

18 Responses to “Autistic or Not: How to have an armchair chitchat”


Comment by MommyTime.

This is a fantastic answer. I just needed to put that out there. I have absolutely nothing intelligent to add.


Comment by Random Questions After Half a Bottle of Cheap Wine | Queen of Shake Shake.

[…] I don’t know that the person who asked will come over to my site so it would be most helpful over there.) Share and […]


Comment by Sophie, Inzaburbs.

Thank you Heather for stating this in such a measured fashion. I am not as articulate as Heather so if the following seems blunt, it is not meant that way:

As the mother of a slightly quirky child who happens to have a language disorder (now almost grown out of), I cannot tell you the hurt which has been caused over the years by well-meaning people diagnosing him off the back of a cereal box (remember those Autism Speaks Ads?) and then refusing to accept what we knew about him. And we were the lucky ones, by being “in denial” we avoided incorrect therapies which would have been counter-productive for our son.

Someone once said to me ” We are all on the spectrum. The human spectrum.” Concerned, maybe your friend’s son has developmental issues, maybe not. Obviously I don’t know the full story. But unless your friend also has major psychological problems herself, there is no way she has not noticed her son’s different behaviors. If you are really concerned, wait for him to do something quirky and ask her casually “Does he do that a lot?”. If she hasn’t already that is all it will take to send her on a panicked search for answers.
I suspect she has an idea of her son’s true diagnosis (often through family history) and is at peace with the way she is handling it. A good friend will be supportive of that.


Comment by christy.

I don’t have anything to add, just wanted to say that I loved reading the question and the answer by Heather. I’m so glad I found this blog!


Comment by Sara Rose.

It’s not anyone’s business unless it’s somehow affecting them personally, which I suspect it isn’t, but people do so love being nosy don’t they.


Comment by Andrea's Sweet Life.

Great answer, Heather! I’m the mom of a gifted child, and some of her sensory issues… well, let’s just say her nickname has been “Monk” since she was a toddler.

I often use humor as well, mainly because I discuss her “issues” on a strictly need-to-know basis.


Comment by bina64.

Excellent answer and I don’t need to add to this.


Comment by Janine.

How dare you make a child wear chinos. What kind of monster are you?


Comment by Marinka.

Sophie–we all are absolutely on the spectrum and it’s quite fluid, I think.


Comment by Diane.

Love this and all comments. I have a clearly non-autistic kid who has an allergy to buttons, zippers, ties and all things not elastic. A friend recently left a voicemail for me letting me know that she had a lengthy conversation with a specialist who diagnosed my child with a mild form of autism without ever having met her. Classic.


Comment by Heather, TMH.

Janine: Clearly I’m a satanic monster!

Diane: Payton has a shrine in his bedroom built in honor of elastic-waist pants. And my Visa worships Lands End kid pants.


Comment by Formerly Gracie.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for putting this out there. I so sick of the “well-meaning” facade of diagnosing other people’s problems… er, children. You couldn’t have said “mind your own bees wax” any better.


Comment by Ungirdled Passion.

Heather – you are my hero! Great answer! So refreshing in today’s culture. I think I would have been locked up as a kid if today’s computer chair MDs had gotten a gander at me in my formative years!


Comment by Steph.

Dear Concerned,

With friends like you, who needs in-laws?


Comment by Amber in Albuquerque.

Beautiful answer. My own eccentric child (who. BTW, also refuses to wear waist button pants) has taught me never to judge other children, parents, or parental judgments…like someone above said, we’re all part of the ‘human spectrum’.


Comment by Memarie Lane.

thank you so much for this. i’m so tired of people thinking my son must be autistic just because he was a late talker and is a little behind in some areas. his doctor says he’s totally normal, but that just isn’t enough for some people. it’s like they want him to be autistic so they’ll have something to talk about over the backyard hedge.


Comment by Karin.

I think this might dismiss some of the children with real problems – 5 years ago, I would have agreed with you but then I had a student – a 5th grader – who could have been a poster child for classic signs of autism – brilliant but locked in his own world. But his parents refused to believe anything detracting about him – he was perfect in every way – and refused to have him tested therefore keeping him from any treatment that could have helped him cope better. As soon as the conversation came up – week one of school, mom and dad got extremely defensive. This child was a distraction in class, could not stay on topic, could not complete assignments as assigned (I asked for a paragraph on the scientific method, he gave me 5 pages on space exploration in scientific method format; he only answered 2 of 10 math questions b/c he got distracted explaining his answer in higher level math terms) and b/c the parents refused to believe that something was wrong with their child, we were very limited on what we could do and it is not fair to the other students in the classroom since all of our energies needed to be focused on this one high-needs child. They eventually removed him from our school (private school) and said some very nasty things about us teachers. Well, come to find out, they had done the same thing at the last 4 school. This child had been at 9 different school and an even larger numbers of pediatricians and was told the same thing yet refused to believe it. The best we could do was refer them to social services.

Brushing the kid off as eccentric isn’t always the best answer.

vodka tonic Reply:

Fellow teacher here, YES. I have seen this happen countless times (and I teach high school). I think oftentimes the parents themselves are feeling threatened and feel like their kids’ behavior is somehow their fault. Some parents mirror the same traits, and are in a blind spot. But as teachers, we can’t… shouldn’t… mustn’t… ever… EVER… diagnose a kid. We can advise of problematic behaviors we have seen. And learning difficulties. And suggest to talk it over with the pediatrician. Same advice as Heather has given. But I disagree with the notion that the parents have already thought about the quirks. No. They want to pretend the quirks don’t exist. I’ve had an Aspberger family of all toe-walkers: mom, dad, kids, and the parents didn’t believe there was any problem with their kids’ behaviors. The toe-walking was cute. The social difficulties were just anomalies. The failure to see different perspectives was just determination.

And it goes around and around, and goes nowhere. Kids fall through the cracks. Parents school-shop. I’ve had parents tell me that they consciously did not have their child’s testing results and classroom modifications sent on to the new school, simply because they didn’t want the “label.” As if a new school, a fresh start, would somehow erase a child’s disability. And the child continues to fall further and further behind, disconnects more and more, and the problems get amplified until the wheels fall off the bus.

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