As the father of an autistic son, I parent a peculiar child. My son can blend in much of the time, but eventually deviates. When playing games, he takes losses too hard. He objects to disorder, rants obsessively on odd topics, and insists upon following the rules as he sees them. All that can prompt disruptive episodes. My wife and I deal with the judgment of other parents, and fear how other children will respond to ours. We don’t want to see him rejected, and we don’t enjoy being judged.
It is therefore with some sympathy that I consider this account from the mother of a “gender creative” son, posted to Scary Mommy:
My 10-year-old son wanted to enjoy a day at the park, as he frequently does. A day full of possibilities. An unfolded day full of potential new playmates, made-up games, and imaginative adventures.
I see my son, decked out in hot pink Justice sweatpants, a neon hearts and emojis “girls” T-shirt, and pink and purple Twinkle Toe Skechers. He is perched delicately atop the hard, steel yellow monkey bars, alone, watching the other kids who seemingly never have to worry about finding a playmate. The story goes the same way every time we come here, which is several times a month, and it always goes like this:
I watch my gender creative son bravely approach at least four different kids over the course of an hour, who are all about his age or maybe a bit younger, and ask them to play. Regardless of what he’s wearing, his personality can come off a little confounding, because he looks like a boy, but has the occasional voice and frequent mannerisms of a girl. He seeks out other kids who are alone and approaches with a confident, “Hi, I’m Charlie. What’s your name?” Sometimes they answer, sometimes they just walk away. If they answer, his next question is always, “Do you want to play?” Sometimes, he gets lucky. But usually not.
This late afternoon, I have watched him get rejected four times already. Each of these four times, the kid Charlie asked has looked him up and down, and then responded with either 1) walking away without even the courtesy of a reply, or 2) saying, “no” very curtly and then walking away — not even, “No, thanks.” What has happened to basic manners?
The account continues at length, gushing indignation toward a world which rejects this boy who acts like a girl. Why can’t the world change? Why won’t everyone just accept him?
As I compare and contrast this mother’s account with my experience raising an autistic son, to an extent I get her angst. It’s frustrating to see your kid struggle. On the other hand, I wonder whether this mother takes any responsibility for her kid’s predicament.
When my son’s behavior causes conflict or confusion, when he offends someone or gets rejected, it never occurs to me to spew indignation toward other parents and their children. It’s not on the rest of the world to make my autistic son feel normal. That’s not their job. It would be irrational for me to expect people who have no concept of autism to instantly understand it. For them, it is not normal.
We all act hesitantly around deviant behavior. We form a thousand impressions per minute based on social signals both subtle and overt. When those signals fall into expected patterns, we process them quickly and respond with ease. But when someone’s behavior defies expectation, when someone screams for no reason or cross-dresses, it throws us off. Why wouldn’t it?
Yes, kids should be polite. Yes, saying “no thanks” when asked to play is preferable to just saying “no.” But should you really be surprised when a “gender creative” child prompts confusion and discomfort?
A key difference between my situation and this mother’s is the nature of the deviance. To a large extent, my kid can’t help how he is. He’s just wired differently. Many would argue the same of gender-confusion (i.e. transexualism). I don’t buy that. Gender is objective. It’s not a mood. It’s not a feeling. It’s genetic, binary, and definite. You’re either a boy or a girl, period. Efforts to deny biology aside, the vast majority of the world still recognizes male and female when they see it. Cross-dressing is weird, and you can expect people to react accordingly.
Besides, the fact remains that the world owes us no acceptance. Whether my son’s behavior is a product of nature or choice, he’s responsible for it. That’s a lesson which children should be taught. I struggle to teach it to both my sons, autistic and not.
Nobody has to like us. We are owed benevolence only, the basic respect due any human being. Whether others like us depends largely on how our behavior affirms their values. If we act like jerks, we can expect to get treated like jerks. If we act like weirdos, we can expect to get treated like weirdos. Whatever reaction we get, it reflects the impression we have made. That’s something we can affect, for better or worse. But it’s not something we can control, and not something we should attempt to dictate.
That’s where my sympathy for this mom breaks down. She wants the world to change and accommodate her son’s deviance, rather than recognize it as deviance. She writes:
It would be so nice if kids could just see a friendly, sweet kid, who looks interesting and fun to play with, without having to decipher their gender first. What would the world look like without “expected” stereotypical gender expression? What would the world look like, if after a woman has a baby, the first question is automatically, “How are the mother and baby doing?” as opposed to, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Why are we so preoccupied with such a boring, bland binary world?
Because most of us don’t share that deviant perception of gender as inconsequential. We’re interested in whether a newborn baby is a boy or a girl because gender defines much of the human experience, and we’re interested in relating to others on terms which we understand.
This expectation that the rest of the world conform to a peculiar worldview reveals a profound and off-putting arrogance. Why does everyone else have to change? Why does everyone else have to conform to this lady and her kid? If conformity is so bad, then stop asking everyone else to conform with your deviance. Just be different, and deal with the fact that others will notice and think it strange.