Alien Baby

… come back and look at your autistic child again, and say to yourself: “This is not my child that I expected and planned for. This is an alien child who landed in my life by accident. I don’t know who this child is or what it will become. But I know it’s a child, stranded in an alien world, without parents of its own kind to care for it…”

Don’t Mourn for Us, by Neurodiversity activist Jim Sinclair, was one of the first things I read after my son’s autism diagnosis.  Although I love the rest of the essay, something about the description of the “alien child” has never felt right.

From the very beginning of M’s life, I looked for, and found, signs of his similarity to me. He was an intense baby whose eyes were always open wide, who rarely smiled.  He spoke his first word at 8 months, and was obsessed with letters and numbers.  At one, his favorite toy was an alphabet puzzle.  At two, it was a calculator.  He had a freakish ability to remember song lyrics and dates.  He was late to crawl, later to walk, and never explored things physically the way my friends’ kids did.  He was painfully shy, and anxious around strangers.  He was certainly an atypical kid, but all his quirks seemed very familiar.

After he was diagnosed, I struggled most with the writing that described autism as a fundamentally different way of being.  His brain, I read, was so different from mine that we would never fully understand each other.  It is hard to describe the kind of grief and panic these thoughts provoked.  Somewhere down at the core of my desire to have children, I realized, was the idea that I was creating a tiny copy of myself.

Another part was what Judith Warner (in We’ve Got Issues) described as “the idea that, through sheer force of will, you can control your child’s every experience, create a perfect environment, and guarantee him or her the right kind of life.”  Most parents eventually learn to let go of these expectations; those who can’t are doomed to a lifetime of frustration and disappointment.  But as Warner points out, the parents of children with autism, or with physical disabilities or serious illnesses, are forced to let go of that illusion of control early and abruptly.

In the first months after the diagnosis, I had a hard time watching M play without mentally categorizing everything he did or said as a symptom.  All of those quirks that previously made me smile with recognition now looked like symptoms of autism — which was always described as a terrible and disabling neurological disorder — and evidence of the impenetrable wall between us.

Like many parents of kids on the spectrum, I have a lot of autistic “symptoms” myself.  The more I thought about M’s diagnosis, the more I reflected back on my own life through this lens.  I discovered that many of my personality traits are listed in the on-line self-assessment tests for autism, which consistently placed me just a few points below the threshold for diagnosis.  M scored a 30 on the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (children with scores of 30 and above are assigned an ASD diagnosis).  If I was a few points shy of autism, and M sat exactly on the threshold, then maybe we weren’t so far apart after all.

My younger son, L, smiles constantly, sleeps easily, flirts with strangers, bounces back quickly from disappointment.  I’m pretty sure he inherited his temperament from my father (Lord knows it didn’t come from me or my husband).  I hope I’m right, both because I miss my dad terribly and because this kind of temperament is the one our society expects and rewards.  Those of us not born with it learn to fake it.   Those born with it, it seems, have easier lives.  They are happier, more successful, more resilient.

My father often seemed baffled at how he managed to produce three daughters, all of whom struggle with varying degrees of depression and anxiety, none of whom shared his optimism or love for the spotlight.  And I feel the same way about my younger son.  Strangers beam at him, asking, “Is he always this happy?”  Yes, usually he is.  And if one of my sons is an alien child, stranded in an alien world, without parents of his own kind, then he is the one.

Sarah Schneider blogs at Kitaiska Sandwich.  Alien Baby appears here with her permission.

[image: Wikimedia Commons]

on 11/26/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Gwen McKay says:

    Sarah, this is one of the rare posts that’s so well written and has so many thought-provoking facets that I was reluctant to comment at first, for fear of not doing it justice. Today I still have a variety of related thoughts bouncing around in my head, which have gotten too complicated for a comment and probably will end up in my blog post for this week. :)

  2. Sarah says:

    Thanks Gwen. I’m glad you liked it. I’ll look forward to reading your post.

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