I recently read an article about a mom physically tackling and fighting her autistic child to force them to confront one of their sensitivities/aversions. She calls her child a burden, and laments his ‘tantrums’, apparently ignorant of what sensory overload induced meltdowns are about. I don’t want to give her credit and views by linking her, but it was an article published by the Washington Post, presented as a positive thing despite her admitting doctors consider her actions dangerous. I wanted to address a particular phrase. She describes her child’s aversions as ‘autistic phobias’. I can’t begin to express my dislike of this phrase. Aversions and sensitivities are not ‘phobias’. They can cause legitimate pain. I have a phobia of spiders. I have an aversion to seafood. I know the difference.
I’ve been wanting to do a piece about sensory sensitivity and aversions for a while now, I just wasn’t sure how to start it. Now I know.
If your kid has an aversion to a large, crowded arena sized theater, let me give you what I imagine they might be experiencing in terms you might comprehend. Picture that you’ve been dropped into the ocean. You’re kicking frantically to stay afloat at the surface, exhausting you to the point that you want to pass out, but you can’t because you need to survive. It’s so deep that you can’t see the bottom. The vastness and space are oppressive and make you feel small and vulnerable. The darkness below is an expanse in which anything can be hiding to come up and chomp your legs. There are large fish making strange noises with large teeth swimming all around you, and you don’t know if you’re their prey or not. Waves keep hitting you, salt is stinging your eyes, and the water is so cold it burns your skin. The noises around you cause literal pain with how loud and close they are and make your eardrums feel like they’re going to explode. Everything happening all at once is overloading your senses because you can’t focus on each individual problem at the same time, so it turns into a giant ball of pain. You’re terrified, you don’t know how or when this will end. All you want is to get back into a boat and feel something solid under your feet, to be surrounded by familiar people who’ll give you a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate, to be in a safe environment. Instead, you give in and shut off, resigning to your fate as a tortured, drowning victim as you sink.
Some people are professional divers or marine biologists who feel right at home and happy in this environment. They know that this particular species of fish is just curious and harmless to humans, they know how to block out the noise. They bring gear to give them protection from the elements. They have a great time with this experience. But that’s not necessarily you. In this scenario, the theater is the ocean, and you are a marine biologist. Try to understand that your kid is not. And they won’t be just because you beat them into submission – that’s just forcing them to chose between two different types of torture. Do they fight the waves, or let the fish drag them down? Forcing this choice on your child will make them suppress themselves around you in an unhealthy way that will emerge later as an adult or teen in the form of trust issues and trauma.
I don’t have this particular aversion to theaters, but I would like to talk about one I do have. I have a lot of food aversions and sensitivities. To throw extra wood on that fire, I literally taste things most people do not – my biology class in high school was talking about recessive traits, and there’s a paper with a particular very strong, very bitter, very unpleasant flavor on it that if you have a recessive trait you can taste, but most people do not. Only myself and one other person in the class could taste it. In addition to this, I also have strong aversions to certain textures and smells.
Let me make a quick comparison: If I told you I cooked up a nice batch of insects, the idea of putting that in your mouth would probably make you squirm and shake your head and make faces. Imagine those little legs prickling the inside of your cheek, that insect goo gushing out of its abdomen when you bite down, coating and sticking to your tongue. Little pieces of exoskeleton stuck against the roof of your mouth. It’s horrific – as in, literally a trope used in horror movies. That same aversion is what I feel towards textures of things like mushrooms and the smell of things like seafood. Just because some cultures see insects as perfectly delicious, legitimate food doesn’t mean you do. Just because you see mushrooms and seafood as perfectly delicious, legitimate food doesn’t mean I do.
My mom used to hide food that I didn’t like in food I did like without telling me to try and trick me into eating it. I love mashed potatoes – so she put cauliflower in the mashed potatoes. She would not tell us what was in food unless we tried it first, leading me to just not eat a lot of food if I wasn’t fairly confident I knew what it was. She’d tell me that something in a solid color cup with a solid lid and a straw was my favorite drink (orange juice) when it was actually my least favorite drink (milk). That small mushrooms were actually ‘soft water-chestnuts’.
You know what this all amounted to? Me distrusting anyone giving me food if I don’t know exactly what it is and can’t see everything clearly. My husband even feels this instinctive distrust – for years, I was afraid if he offered me something new accompanied with the words, “Here, just try this, you’ll like it.” He could feel my distrust, and I think it hurt him a little. In short, my palate was not expanded by these actions, my distrust was. My palate expanded as an adult on my own time.
For example, I willingly tried a dish called Gobi Manchurian, which is essentially seasoned and fried cauliflower. It’s delicious. But I knew what was going into my mouth, there was no trick. I made the conscious choice to try it when I was open to the concept.
Trying to get your autistic child to try new things is not bad, don’t misunderstand me. But breaking their trust to force the issue before they’re mentally able to cope is wrong, plain and simple.
Please note that I was not diagnosed as autistic as a child, and my mom had no concept of the intensity of autistic aversions. I’m not trying to bash her here, just trying to make a point. She really is a good mom, and my aversions were not as severe as some, so it may have not been as obvious. An example of a not good mom is one who will tackle their child in public, wrestle said child for over a half hour, and drag them kicking and screaming into a non-sensory friendly theater. Physically fighting them, practically body-slamming them, and dragging them as they scream for mercy is abuse.
If you’re forcing your child into non-sensory friendly environments, or forcing them to confront aversions, think about who you’re doing this for. Are you watching the milestones of neurotypical children and measuring your child against them, wishing you could brag about meeting those same milestones? Do you find yourself hating ‘autism’ and crying about what a burden dealing with ‘autism’ is, wishing you didn’t have ‘autism’ in your life? Do you call meltdowns ‘tantrums’, dismissing the cause of meltdowns entirely because you just see it as behavior in need of correcting? Do you find yourself overjoyed when your child does something ‘normal’ or is able to ‘pass’ not because you think your child is enjoying themselves or comfortable, but because for those moments it almost feels like you don’t have to deal with ‘autism’? Do you find yourself excusing abuse with “It’s okay, s/he’s autistic”? It’s not okay. And it’s not worth it. Try to imagine what your child is actually feeling and respond kindly and with empathy to that instead of focusing on how ‘autism’ affects you. It’s. Not. About. You.
And you know something… maybe your autistic kid will never get over their aversion the way I’ve learned to eat cauliflower. Maybe it’s so strong, so painful, that they just can’t. If it’s not harming them, then don’t push it. They don’t need to eat mushrooms. They don’t need to go to a non-sensory friendly performance in a giant arena with tons of screaming children.
Something I don’t think I will ever overcome is my aversion to seafood. The smell is so abrasive that the idea of putting anything related to seafood in my mouth makes me break out into a cold sweat.
A while back, I went to this cooking event my parents had tickets for. They teach you how to make a meal, and the theme was New Orleans, so seafood was involved in some of the dishes. There was a dish that had small bits of crawfish in it. I didn’t have a lot in my bowl, but I knew it was there. All I could picture was that disgusting smell and how that smell would taste. My husband, then fiancé, was there with me, watching me try to force myself to put this food in my mouth. I literally trembled just holding the fork, tried to pretend I was a ‘normal’ adult, and ended up on the verge of tears.
My husband, Evan, said the most amazing thing. “You don’t have to eat it.”
He recognized that it was so difficult for me to mentally overcome this aversion that it was better to just not eat it, and I could eat something else later. It was like a wave of pure relief to be told I don’t have to force myself to do something I’m so opposed to. I felt understood and respected.
If your kid has aversions, give them the option to try and confront them, but don’t force it. In the long run, they’re only going to be hurt by it. Understand and respect them.
And, just for those in the back: Abuse is not excused because your child is autistic. If you wouldn’t throw your body on top of a neurotypical child and restrain/wrestle them for half an hour for something as trivial as not wanting to watch a concert you want them to watch, don’t do it to an autistic kid. Don’t force people to endure pain if there’s no danger in them not enduring it. Disability is not an excuse for abuse.
DISABILITY IS NOT AN EXCUSE FOR ABUSE.
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Autistic Moments – Aversions and Sensitivities (text)
Some Girl with a Braid: I can’t do it… I know there’s seafood. I can’t eat it.
Evan: You don’t have to eat it. It’s okay.
Some Girl with a Braid: I can feel her judging me. She’s watching me.
Evan: She doesn’t matter. You don’t need to eat it.
Some Girl with a Braid: I love you. Let’s get McDonalds.