Her face wrinkled a little. “So,” she asked me, “is my son going to become a psychopath?”
I took her hand and looked into her eyes, “Of course not. Not if we have anything to say about it.”
This was a crucial turning point; I knew I had to dispel ANY doubt in her mind as to her child’s propensity for evil. This was a case for the partner, not the pragmatist. I couldn’t pull the usual “Jackie” tricks and objectify her doubt away. I didn’t dwell on the differences between psycho- and sociopaths, and point out that a sociopath was probably what she imagined as the news segments played in the background. I had to be the voice of gentle reason. I didn’t tell her that her husband’s tendency to yell and shame her son wouldn’t help his growing anxiety in the face of others’ rejection. I didn’t tell her that I’D TOLD HER SO, that her tendency to indulge her son’s every whim was at the core of his massive weight gain; that it was bound to decrease his confidence in opposite proportion to his ballooning stomach.
No — I had to pull out my best behavioral training to get her past this stream of consciousness. I had to emphasize her positive thinking, the reinforcement of the wonderful artist that this boy was becoming. There could be no more shaming, and there could be no more shaming of these parents’ shaming of their son. Not if he was going to stay away, away from the violence and the guns and the anxiety and the rage. Not if I had anything to say about what we had to say about it.
Hers was a question I am asked too often by parents of my clients. News anchors report the latest strings of deadly violence — via guns, trucks, bombs, or bare hands — and they look at me with the same desperate pleading — Do you think he was autistic? Do you think MY child has what he has? Do you think he’s going to kill ME like that?? I was once asked, “Do you think Norman Bates was autistic?” and almost laughed at the mention of my favorite horror movie, before realizing this mother’s hidden fear was that she would end up as the skeleton in the wig!
Let me be clear: Norman Bates — aside from being insane — was fictional! I’m pretty sure Alfred Hitchcock was not considering the notion of sensory and behavioral deficits when he was creating his masterpiece.
But I have a troubled mother in front of me with very real doubts, despite Mr. Bates’ fictitiousness, so I quickly have to turn the train of thought around and draw her attention back to the behavior strategies we discussed. In a completely uncharacteristic fashion, I don’t even care that many parents are only starting to listen to me because of a tragedy that happened thousands of miles away. I only care that they are listening to me, that they stop screaming at their child, that they stop comparing him to their other children and other people’s other children long enough to see the beautiful personalities unfolding before their eyes. I need them to see who their children really are, before they crush the butterfly wings before being given a chance to fly.
But I’ve seen the other side, too. I’ve seen the child who cannot empathize. I’ve seen the child who’s self-awareness places him in that painful space between ‘daring not to care’ and ‘caring too much,’ and I know he can swing either way. There are places that behaviorism cannot go, situations I cannot touch, no matter how desperately I want to change the momentum I see before me. If the right role models aren’t in their stations in time, ready to help, then I can see myself having lied to many women who’ve asked me, a desperate pleading in their eyes, The news reported that murderer might have been autistic . . . do you think MY kid will end up like that??
The best-kept secret of my job — of my field, really — is that it’s not just about the kids, it’s about the parents. My job is not to tinker with a child’s brain like a mad scientist, but to arrange and rearrange environments that include the parent’s teachings and methods of raising their children. I have been demanded to leave the premise of a household where I went too far and told the parent they were standing in the way of their child’s pathway to success. The biggest lesson I have learned in the face of so much violence in our world is that the parent-child relationship is one that cannot be undervalued or overlooked. I see posts all the time, bemoaning the state of mental health in our nation. My only answer to their questions is, “How did the parents treat the issue of mental health in their homes?” I will lie to parents now, if only to keep them on the side of their children instead of against them.
Thankfully, I have seen the opposite. I have seen the wonder that occurs when parents and children are beautifully in step, sharing interests as if no diagnoses existed between them. I have seen parents lose sleep, I have seen them lose homes to in-laws that were denying and disapproving of the parents’ struggles to get their children the help they needed. I have seen parents cry when their children hugged them, because they also worried they would become sociopaths, but never dared voice the fear aloud. And as long as there are parents willing to fight for their children, diagnoses or not, hope springs eternal that people who are autistic will not be labeled sociopaths or murderers. One day, news outlets will get it right. One day, people — and I include the medical field in this — will understand what autism is, and that it does not breed animals, but rather, incredible and extraordinary souls.