“Your son might be Autistic… or he’s just a boy.”

http://www.childrenshospital.org/dream/summer09/arresting_autism.html

http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/26184891/#30009205

Does anyone else think this kind of thing is a tragedy?  These kind of clips embody what’s wrong in the world about autism right now.  Now just FYI, my children and I actually took part in this exact study mentioned here in the videos (i.e. the Infant Sibling Project in Boston.)  So I am not speaking flippantly.  I have experience with this field, with the kinds of experiments done, and even some of these researchers now.  I also have a child with whom I was sucked into this autism scare tactic before I knew better.

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I have written a lot of posts which touch on this subject so I’m not going to repeat myself much here.  But I am just fuming these days over the mothers in these clips who feel better now that their oldest boys have a diagnosis.  There is a reason why those maxims that “he’s just a boy” or “he’ll outgrow it” are true.  Because it’ true.  There’s a whole crop of children out there (many of whom are eldest boys) who grow up with these delays and social awkwardness.  The symptoms are real.  The delays are real.  But labeling them all autistic is inaccurate.  Mothers are now being torn apart by, yet strangely taking comfort in, this diagnosis.  Maybe because now the confusion is gone, the fears are validated, and there is an action plan?  But the stigma is now on the child and it will take about six years of weirdness to outgrow.  That is, IF all the years of therapy, IEPs, and parental weirdness doesn’t fulfill the prophecy.

After going through this myself with my oldest, I still get upset when mother after mother who tells me the story of their preschool pathologizing their little boys.  “He’s developmentally delayed,”  “He’s socially awkward,”  “He’s not communicating,” “He’s not following directions.”  “Maybe he’s PDD-NOS.”  Except for the diagnosis of Oppositionally Defiant Disorder, there is probably nothing which irritates me more than all these little boys being put on THE SPECTRUM (the autism spectrum that is).

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not against preschools, I am not against early intervention, I am not against special ed, and I am not against autism research.  I have a classically autistic cousin.  I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen how much the special education sector has helped her.  They’ve given her a quality of life she probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.  So I am not against more attention being given to autism and autism-like disorders.  I think this is awesome.

What I AM against is the constant confusion of gender with autism.  And I bet if I knew more girls having the problem, I would broaden my position (I just don’t know of many yet).  It is simply the case that many boys have the tendency to develop later, more awkwardly, less socially, less verbally, less imaginatively.  This does not put them on THE SPECTRUM.  It makes it important to teach boys these things.  It makes gender and birth order more important than the personality icons they currently are.

First of all, there is a cultural schizophrenia going on in our culture about boys.  On one hand, gender doesn’t matter and girls and boys are put together in the same daycare, preschool, and kindergarten classrooms like they’re all the same.  But on the other hand, boys will be boys and people treat girls and boys accordingly.  Expecting a little girl to fold her hands and sit quietly, for example (many don’t).  Or expecting boys to be wild and ill-mannered (many are not).  It isn’t just the difference between professionals and playground moms… both attitudes often come from the same people.  Boys make moms throw up their hands in irritation as they make silly faces, get into things, and generally act as though they’re in their own social universe.  So we reinforce boyhood stereotypes sometimes… but we don’t usually TREAT boys differently than girls.  In our egalitarian society, that’s not kosher.  (The same kind of argument can be made for girls, for that matter).  We may harbor more resentment toward boys—studies have shown that teachers and strangers tend to elicit more positive responses from girls—which is totally unhealthy of course.  But we still throw them in the same classrooms and have the same developmental timelines.

I think this is ridiculous.  First of all, boys and girls seem to have very different experiences of life, even as children.  Some of the stereotypes exist for a reason.  In my house, the boys generally respond to action and consequences–my daughter responds to words.  The boys are motivated by something to do, the girl is motivated by someone to be with.  The boys like things that do something cool, my girl likes things that are cute or pretty, or fit a certain function.  The boys always want to know why, or do things better if they understand why; my girl could care less. My boys are more innocent–charming, sweet, inclusive.  My girl is pickier, shyer of strangers and men, and more skeptical of what you want her to do.  My boys don’t tend to deduce things very well—they need things explained logically, step by step, and they won’t fill in blanks if they don’t know the answer (i.e. if I say a word they don’t know, they have no idea what I’m talking about; if I tell them something is in the dresser but it’s actually under it, they won’t look or notice).  My girl takes more time, liberty, and pretty much deduces exactly what I’m talking about, even if I’m using new vocabulary.  She hardly ever asks what something means.  My boys process one thing at a time, individualistically, and very much in context.  My girl processes multiple things, in relationship, through words and can generalize to different contexts naturally. She is the only one of the four (she is 2.5 yrs old, and my oldest son is almost 7 now) who will correct what I’m saying if I don’t guess right the first time (i.e. “not squish, Mom… smush“).  The distinctions come earlier.

So boys definitely process things differently than girls.  It is partly a matter of brain activity, which shows that boys use the non-verbal side of their brains more than girls (who use the verbal).  And that boys develop prefrontal cortex activity later than girls, who use more of their brains earlier.  Some differences are hormonal too, although not much is usually said about pre-pubescent hormones to state definitively.  But in my opinion, from comparing my three boys to my one girl, the main thing I see is that my girl demands attention.  There is no way of getting around her because she’s in my face all the time, talking, bouncing, sharing.  My boys have the tendency to be underfoot, for sure, but they tend to be less sure or confrontational about what they need… I have to notice myself and initiate.  (i.e. sometimes my oldest needs more hugs but he’d never realize that himself or solicit it).

Actually this last example is interesting because I have noticed that my little girl has had more talking and touching in her first two years than my boys probably had in theirs.  Not because I favored her but because she’s always here talking to me, trying to talk to me, trying to look in my eyes and get her to notice her, move her, get her something, etc.  My boys had the normal amount of touching when they were babies of course, but did not elicit the same talking and touching needs as my girl… so I probably did not give it to them.  I am speaking in generalities of course, but to this day I wonder what would have happened if I gave my boys the same talking and touching that my daughter has received (because she demands it).  My oldest might still have had language trouble, and my second might have had sensory problems, but I bet they would have been less severe.  I bet I would have overrun their personal boundaries to fix it—in comparison to the kind of uncertain, reticent posture I had when I was first figuring out how to discern and confront my little boys’ weaknesses.  My daughter has taught me that her overrunning my personal boundaries makes sure she got the stimulation she needed.  Because my boys didn’t approach me in that way, and I did not approach them that way, they may have suffered… at least a little.

I think it continues past the age of three too, since girls tend to be more relational, social, verbal.  This ensures they continue to get the attention and practice they need to engender more skills in these areas.  Boys are often off and away from people at 4, 5, 6… they’re careening around the playground and playing swordsmen, etc.  They aren’t usually interacting with mom about what kind of pretty butterfly they saw and how they need some lemonade.  And do we think they should?  Do we counteract that?  Of course not… we usually reinforce what is natural to them.  But then should we be surprised at the different results?  I am speaking again in generalities of course, but just to make the point: nature plays a role, and then nurture nurtures the nature =)

So I think more research on gender needs to make its way into the mainstream.  I am sure there are all kinds of gender-based studies which have been done that do NOT point to androgynous developmental charts.  But because we can’t segregate our classrooms or playgrounds (nor I am advocating that), there is little point in popularizing this line of thought.  But in the meantime, when experts tell you that your preschool boy is language delayed, socially awkward, or possible on THE SPECTRUM, remind yourself that he could be autistic… or he could just be a boy.

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9 thoughts on ““Your son might be Autistic… or he’s just a boy.”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this blog! It’s like you are writing about my son! I’m going through the autistic scare myself, but reading your article has made me feel so much better.

    I have one question, how did you come to the conclusion that your son didn’t have autism?

  2. i think there is a lot of truth to what you say–i have been through this– 5 yr old diagnosed w/ high functioning autism, now at 7 saw famous dr.greenspan diagnosed w/ regulatory-sensory-processing disorder, greenspan (who literally wrote the book on autism)says he is not on the spectrum. married to a physician we believe these type of diagnosis are very subjective—a parent has to think about what that label –good and bad –will do for their child—for us –we told the school to get some services but we don’t tell friends or anyone else. he has matured, therapied, or whatevered out of a lot of it –remember in the professional worldr’s and therapists –there are “lumpers” and “splitters” some believe throwem all into the spectrum–others believe it is helpful to define it better–i describe my child by his profile–weak social skills–reactive, etc, and adress it that way.

  3. Elizabeth,
    What issues did your son have? I have a son who shows some autistic tendencies (not sure what else to call them). Do you all feel that some children mature and outgrown a lot of these? He is making progress – it’s just very slow

  4. Hi Lisa,
    My son also had some ‘tendencies’ but as he has got older they do seem to be disappearing or as the person who initiated this blog explains, a lot of behaviour exhibited by autistic children is unsurprisingly exhibited by non-autistic children because after all they are all children. However, I think once you have got the idea in youre mind it is difficult to remove it, especially if you are a stay at home mummy, you have more time on your hands to analyse every move, and then the internet can really start to help and of course mislead.

    For example I am just reading about echolalia at the moment.

  5. Sophie – Thanks! How old is your son? Yes – I do seem to analyze EVERYTHING. Even things that I think – ok that totally is a boy thing that all of my nephews did in the past. Wish I had a crystal ball and could look into the future and see how everything will play out. Can you tell me what sort of tendencies your son had and when they disappeared? Thanks a lot!
    Lisa

  6. Thats interesting. I have a 30 month old boy who doesn`t speak yet. He babbles, and will repeat a few words but won`t speak on his own. He does point with his finger when he wants something or bring you to it. He understands many things. He doesn`t really stare or line up things, but he does have temper tantrums when he doesn`t get what he wants. He throws himself on the floor and bangs his head during the tantrums only. We have had him observed and apperently he does show signs of being on the spectrum. He is having a hard time adjusting to daycare as he cries often while there. We feel lost as your article does make sense and part of me still thinks he is too young to be labelled. But if there is something wrong with him, in addition to the long waiting lists for help, we don`t know what to do. Any thoughts?

  7. Pingback: worrying is a mom’s job « the thing is…

  8. Thank you for this perspective! My 27 month old son’s language didn’t really take off until 22-23 months. He’s my oldest. But within a month of beginning to babysit a friend’s 3 year old INCREDIBLY verbal boy while she worked, he went from saying about 10 single words to speaking all kinds of 2 and 3 word sentences. I’ve noticed in the last couple of weeks that the echolalia thing is really coming into play- so thanks for that article too.
    We’re American, but we lived in Southeast Asia (where my son was born) until he was 16 months old. At 6 months of age we moved to an all-Malay speaking area and his babysitter spoke only Malay, as well as any kid he interacted with and we saw his language development take a dip. Our co-workers son had been diagnosed with Asperger’s (he truly is, not a mis-diagnosis) and when my son still wasn’t really saying anything (only “uh oh”) by 1 year, we made an appointment with a developmental specialist in Singapore. Now I see just how paranoid I was and how useless it was to worry. She gave him the “all clear” if you will which was a huge relief…but there have still been a few doubts in my gut as he’s just not as along as compared to some peers (girls, boys like my friends chatty 3 yr old).
    After reading a few of your posts (my husband thanks you too bc he’s thought all along I’m nuts:) I can clearly see how he IS developing and that in just 5 short months (since he began talking) his vocabulary and social interaction have really come along… which makes me want to hug the chatty 3 year old for being an older boy in his everyday life who very much intrudes and breaks into my son’s social universe.
    Not sure what your religious beliefs are, but I want to let you know the Lord used you to speak to this mommy’s heart and bring a lot of peace. Thanks and blessings!

  9. Thank you for your comments. I am mentally tortured at the minute. My son is now 2 and 1/2 and in my oppinion he is progressing very well. He is my first child and although his speech is not totally clear he can say many words and ask me thinks like “mammy, where’s daddy”. When he was 22 months old my aunty who very rarely saw him and friend who looked after him on a few occasions said that they were concerned about his communication. My aunty basically diagnosed him with autism. She said she had looked things up. My mam who cares for my son had no concerns and said this too my aunty but my aunty was adament that he was autistic. My aunty seemed to have an answer for everything like “what about when he had a big head” and don’t you think he should be doing more than what he is. I have just potty trained him and he is now out of nappies which I see as a good achievement. I took him too the doctors and the doctor said he didnt know what these people were about. My aunty does not work in this area of work so I dont know how she could diagnose something like autism. I keep thinking over and over things and everyone else, friends and families have reasured me that he is fine. I feel like they have planted a seed in my mind and I’m finding it very hard to get it all out of my head. If my son was ever professionally diagnosed with autism it would not change a thing. He is my baby who love no matter what but it doesnt help when people interfere. I have found yours and other peoples comments very helpful so thank you.

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