People make a lot of assumptions. It’s just a part of who we are. No matter how many times we’re proved wrong or witty little word plays we make about the word “assume”, it still leads the way in how many view the world.
When my daughter was about five years old, she stepped into my walk-in closet. I had only recently moved my wardrobe in and, as she walked inside, she said out loud:
Hmm. So this is a boy’s closet.
Then, after looking around, followed up with a question.
Where are all the bowties?
Unfortunately for her mental image, I had no bowties. Some boys do, I imagine. I’m just not one of them.
That question always stuck with me because it shows that people often have misconceptions about who you are and what you should be. They’re not always what you expect either. Much like the out-of-left-field bowtie assumption, there are many times you’re thought to be something that you’re not.
This disconnected guesswork is bad enough, but the way they present themselves can be infuriating at times. Sometimes they aren’t even posed in the form of a question either, but rather as a statement. The person speaking claims to know you in ways that they clearly don’t, yet they speak as if they have all the knowledge in the world.
My daughter, years removed from the bowtie story, recently had an adult do just that. As this grown-up told her, life is “full of struggles” before following up with an example that she pieced together in her own head – “like how you have to take care of you non-verbal little brother.”
Yeah. It makes me angry just writing it. I didn’t witness this exchange and, in hindsight, it’s good that I didn’t. Internally, I hit the proverbial ceiling when she told me. Externally, I expressed my displeasure in an even-tempered way, by pointing out some facts.
She said that to you?
Has she ever even met Lucas?
I don’t think so.
That’s silly. You don’t take care of him. Have I ever made you take care of him?
No. I don’t know why she said it.
I was angry. My goal from the day he was diagnosed with autism was to make sure that Lucas wasn’t a burden or a chore to his sister. I do this for both her and for him. He’s not a cumbersome duty, but a wonderful person. His relationship with his sister should be based on love, respect, and admiration. At 13, she shouldn’t feel that it’s her job to feed him or bathe him or whatever else this woman thought constituted caretaking.
Make no mistake, the day may come that she does need to do those things, but it’s not today. Hopefully, by the time I can no longer help him in his daily activities, he will have learned many on his own and, if he has not, a proper system will be in place to allow him to get the help he might need.
So where did this false assumption come from? I hate to be one to ironically assume, but I’ve found that often people outside our home make guesses about what our lives are like based on how they see themselves handling the same challenges. For this woman, a special needs child might be something that she would force her other children to be responsible for.
In fact, if Lucas wasn’t non-verbal and didn’t have autism, his sister would probably look after him more. However, I’m sensitive to our situation and know that caring for him is something that stretches beyond typical babysitting duty. The relationship I want them to have with each other is one that needs to be fostered through play, fun, and love. It’s not one that requires her to feel like a surrogate mother. That’s not what we do.
Does she sit with him before bed or dance around the living room when he’s in the mood? Sure. But that’s her choice. If she gives him a cookie or ties his shoes, she does it because she wants to, not because he’d starve or go shoeless without her.
The whole thing rubbed me the wrong way and it reminded me that the assumptions work both ways. Some are positive and some are negative, but they don’t define all families like ours. Nothing does.
People see a special needs parent helping their child and smile at the devoted nature they witness on display. To many observers, that means parents to children with challenges must be beautiful, kind, and loving people. And, in many cases, that’s true. Having a child with challenges tends to give parents and siblings a deeper sense of empathy and compassion. Then again, for some, it tends not to.
I have met parents of children with autism or other special needs who embody all the positive assumptions they have thrown their way. I also have met special needs parents who are rude, gossipy, braggadocios, mean spirited, cruel, and lazy. Loving and caring for your child doesn’t make you a loving and caring person. It just means you have a basic parental instinct that kicks in and helps you take care of the person you are tasked with caring for. Some don’t even have that.
Families with special needs children didn’t fill out an application. We didn’t pass any tests or attain any certification. We’re simply people. The ways we raise our children differ just as much as they do with any parents. Who we are, were, and will be all stretch across a wide spectrum. That’s kind of how people work.
My daughter would never be made to watch over her non-verbal brother with autism as if it was her job. Then again, some other daughters might be. You never know what a particular family’s approach to that is. So, the best bet is to just maybe shut up and not speak as if you have surveillance cameras in their house.
Unless, of course, maybe you do have surverilance cameras in their house. I’d hope you’re not the type to spy on your neighbors. But I’d hate to assume.
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