Recently, I encountered an ‘Autism Mom’ who wrote that she thinks her son shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce. She uses these words: “I am still deeply worried about the idea that he could get someone pregnant and yet could never be a real father – which is why I will insist on having medical power of attorney, so that I will be able to make the decision about a vasectomy for him after he turns 18.” This is Judith Newman, author of ‘To Siri with Love’. (Updated)
According to a New York Times review, she advocates, in fact, for (implied non-voluntary/forced) vasectomies for all autistic men. I’m not sure if she assumes autistic women only have sex with autistic men (in case she reads this and doesn’t know, we are not a separate species incapable of reproducing with neurotypicals), or if she thinks that I too should be sterilized, but men were the ones specifically mentioned. Full disclosure, I have not read the entire book this woman has written detailing her point of view, and I do not wish to give money, publicity, and recognition to someone who seems to consider something that terrible as an option. I have read several passages, and found them disturbing enough to avoid the rest for my own mental health. However, I would like to discuss this topic of sterilization because there are a disturbing number of people out there – including those who claim to be allies of autistics – who feel that we should not be allowed to be parents.
Let me just say it straight up for all the autism parents out there who think that sterilizing their children should be an option. IT. IS. NOT. YOUR. DECISION. Our bodies, our choice. Plain and simple. It is not your right to steal our potential from us.
The fact that any of you would even think it is your call disgusts me. We are allowed to have agency as individuals. And it hurts me deeply that you want to take that away from us. I’ve always wanted to be a mom one day. I’m getting married in less than two months, and if all goes well, in the next few years I’ll have a mini-me or mini-him. Whenever I’ve helped care for young children, I haven’t had any real problems. I’ve worked at summer camps before handling between three to easily a hundred kids at a time. I even just helped look after my year-and-a-half-old niece yesterday and we had a delightful time as she babbled adorable nonsense and took me on a tour of the backyard garden. There are plenty of autistic parents out there who do just fine – or even just mediocre, which isn’t a crime since there are plenty of mediocre neurotypical parents out there whose kids turn out alright. Autistic parents are hard to find online, because any googling of the words ‘autism’ or ‘autistic’ and ‘mom’, ‘dad’, or ‘parent’ automatically leads to an army of neurotypical people who’ve stolen our label to slap on themselves, but they do exist. There’s even autistics out there in the education system or helping out in daycares. In many cases, we are completely capable of being nurturing, loving, successful parents. Maybe when we’re five, ten, or fifteen we’re not at that point yet, but we can learn. Judith Newman’s son is a minor. He has the potential to perhaps become capable of parenting in the next few decades. She wants to rob him of that decision because he’s not as visibly mature in one way or another as current parents – as if people never change? The reason autistic adults are so different from autistic children is that we have learned. We’ve been often forced to adapt by society around us. And even if we haven’t, there’s always the chance that we will in the future. So just because you might look at an autistic boy having a full meltdown and think, “Oh god, he could never be a parent” doesn’t mean that in the future he won’t be fully capable of parenting well. You don’t know where the future will go, how he might adapt and evolve. You should not rob him of his choices by sterilizing him. Thinking differently and having difficulties in life does not mean we should be required to give up the human right that almost all other people on this planet have, whether you think we’re worthy of it or not.
To draw a comparison (and I apologize if I make any mistakes, since it’s not a community I’m intimately familiar with, nor a part of), a deaf person who was born deaf and has no concept of hearing thinks differently from a hearing person. A deaf person would use a visual language – sign language. They may or may not be able to speak verbally. Does this mean that we should sterilize said deaf person out of fear that they won’t be able to communicate well enough if they have a hearing child? No, that’s preposterous, inhumane, and reminiscent of horrifically immoral eugenics programs. Would we do a DNA check and sterilize a hearing person if they were prone to having deaf children out of fear that they wouldn’t be able to communicate well enough with their child? No, of course not, due to presumed competence of able people. We instead provide services. The parent should learn the language their child is most suited for.
Translated to autism, we think differently. Not in something as straightforward as lacking the experience of one of the senses, but our brains are wired differently from neurotypicals. While most of the autistics I’ve encountered are online, I find them easier to communicate with than neurotypicals, and from all the literature on the subject, neurotypicals seem to find just as much difficulty communicating with us as compared to with each other. Speaking hypothetically and with no first-hand experience, I imagine having autistic children as an autistic would be easier for me than it would be for a neurotypical. The language is one that’s natural for me, so to speak. I don’t need to learn it. This isn’t to say that I couldn’t care for a neurotypical child. As far as we can tell at this point, my niece is a bright, social, neurotypical child – she still came running to bang on the bathroom door when I left her for a few moments with her grandmother, so I must have done something right. But to say that because I may have some difficulty different from a neurotypical parent that I shouldn’t be allowed to have the ability to reproduce is appalling. It regulates basic human rights to gatekeepers. What if such a thing were to become common practice again (as we did used to practice forced sterilization)? Why stop at autistics? Should we include all disabilities? After all, how could a blind person look after a child? As seeing people, we think about how difficult that might be for us and all the problems that could happen, but blind people are parents all the time and things turn out fine. Blind adults know how to handle their blindness, and it’s really none of our business how or if they parent so long as they’re not doing something genuinely abusive warranting a call to CPS. Likewise, in general, autistic adults know how to handle autism, and it’s none of your business how or if we parent so long as we’re not doing something genuinely abusive. So don’t you dare force us to give up our choices because you presume we’ll forever be incompetent.
I’d like to mention here something that I learned a while ago that broke my heart. I’ve always imagined I’d adopt a child. Ever since I was little and learned that not everyone had parents or a family, I wanted to provide that for someone if I could. My fiancé is adopted from Korea, and we discussed having one child biologically, then trying to adopt a second, preferably from Korea. I looked up the restrictions for who can adopt from Korea, and it broke me to learn that parents with any history of mental health issues – including autism – are prohibited from adopting. I began reading on forums about adoption, and trying to find anyone writing from the perspective of an autistic trying to adopt or who had adopted not just from Korea, but from anywhere. What I encountered was an unfortunate mess of people who’d been told they shouldn’t be allowed to adopt, or people saying to autistics that (without any knowledge about our abilities as a potential parent or who we are as individuals beyond being autistic) simply because we are autistic we shouldn’t be allowed to be parents because we would be incapable of emotionally nurturing a child due to our lack of empathy. This blends misinformation and incorrect stereotypes into policy that blocks caring, giving people from helping children find families.
Not all autistics want to be parents, and that should be respected. And there’s a good chance some of us perhaps shouldn’t be. But the potential for us to make that choice needs to be there, the same as it is for neurotypical people who might not make for good parents. I think that plenty of us would make for pretty good parents, and I know that there are plenty of autistic parents already out their raising happy children. We just need to not be robbed of our potential.
One last note: If you are a non-autistic parent of an autistic child and want to write a book about it, ensure that you have several autistic adults review your book for content and language as sensitivity readers. I would suggest going on twitter if you have an account, and asking for help using the #askingautistics hashtag – a space set up specifically for neurotypicals to ask autistics questions. Chances are you can find someone willing to help you there.
The mother who wrote the book inspiring this blog post clearly did some research and listened to things like youtube channels of autistic adults as part of her research, which is excellent, but that’s not enough. She pays lip service to things that mean a lot to many autistics, such as pointing towards actually autistic sources, but then undermines it all with presumed incompetence (“I want to understand what he’s thinking. *Is* he thinking?” Yes. Yes he is. And you feeling he doesn’t think will hurt him one day), infantilization, promotion of eugenics, appropriation of autistic adults without their consent or consultation, othering, demeaning language, dismissal of her own son’s agency as a person, dismissal of her son’s privacy as an individual, and overall harmful bile. An autistic sensitivity reader could have seen this and instantly told her how incredibly harmful such language is to our community – and to her son. I don’t think that parents with autistic children should never write books about their experience. I think such works can be very useful to other parents facing similar situations. However, they need to be extremely careful in doing so and ensure that they are not belittling, shouting over, harming, or presuming to speak for autistics. We are the only people who can truly speak for autistics. Keep that in mind next time you see a non-autistic writer appropriating our label, and if you read their work, read it with a grain of salt and a critical lens.
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Some Girl With a Braid at Six Years Old: When I grow up, I’m going to have a baby like my doll, and I’m going to make up a name for her like my mommy and daddy made up my name, and I’m going to love her, and take care of her, and cuddle her, and read to her, and teach her dancing…
Some Girl With a Braid at Twelve Years Old: There’s so many children without nice families like mine… I should make a family for one or two when I grow up. More people should adopt. I should try to adopt.
Some Girl With a Braid at Twenty-Four Years Old: You are the cutest little niece a girl could ask for. I hope your future cousin is even half as cute as you, you adorable little girl.
Niece: Kitty-Cat ah Goo!
Internet: Autistic people should be sterilized. Autistic men should have vasectomies. Autistics should not be allowed to adopt. Autistics should never be parents. Reproducing is a right they should not be allowed.
Some Girl With a Braid: *Sobs quietly*
(Update, 3:43 – came across an extremely disturbing passage and have decided to name names because while I don’t want to give her publicity, this needs to be shamed.)