Monday, October 20, 2014

His privileged life

Here was my pre-kid parenting fantasy number 124: Erik and I would pull our elementary-aged children out of school for a year and take a work sabbatical to travel the world, simply and mindfully, to show the kids what's what in the grand scheme of things and how privileged they are. The year would be pivotal, especially to the kids, whose views of others would be profoundly changed and softened.

Okay, that trip will probably never happen. Setting aside the logistical nightmare that it would be with a special-needs kid, there's the big issue that I don't think that my fantasized perspective shift would sink in for Soren intellectually. But I'm well past the stage in which I feel like Soren's life is a tragedy because I don't "get" to do the parenting bucket lists items that I had dreamed about. This life is our Normal, and sometimes I forget that it's so different from everyone else's normal. And you know what? It's a life full of privilege, even, and especially, for Soren.

Yes, he has profound autism, anxiety, a sleep disorder (now on hiatus!), some funky GI things, and behavior challenges. But not a day goes by that I don't remember that he has so much that makes his life and our lives with him just so easy. We don't need an (elitist and expensive?) trip around the world to understand this. It's ridiculous just how much he was just born into (and we his parents were born into). We've done nothing to deserve this. He's done nothing to deserve this. But he is privileged. And his autism just magnifies this privilege. He is:

  • White. African-American children tend to be diagnosed years later or are often misdiagnosed.
  • Male. If he were a girl with autism, he probably would have been diagnosed even later, since providers know more about males with autism and therefore tend to look for those male-specific symptoms.
  • In a financially comfortable family. We can afford treatments that aren't covered by insurance. For example, Soren's language therapy--using an iPad to communicate, which is a critical skill--doesn't get compensated by our popular insurance plan because he's "aged out" of that benefit (at seven!). 
  • North American. Most research on autism is focused on more affluent western or Asian countries. Treatment is often scarce in developing countries, and there may be a more prevalent public stigma about the disorder.
  • In a stable home life. He's not homeless, a victim of abuse, or impacted by substance abuse. He lives with two present parents. We are all physically healthy.
  • Supported fully by an understanding family and community. He has an extended family that gets it, and a community that (generally, at least) doesn't blame him or us for difference.
  • Living in an urban setting. We have ready access to evidence-based autism resources. We don't have to drive an hour for therapy.

Yes, autism can be challenging for us, and for him. But I've seen what happens when you don't have this privilege that we have, and disability can be so much more impacting and even devastating. I've seen a single mom with cancer struggle to keep up with her autistic kids. I've seen parents with what is probably untreated mental illness try to manage complex behavioral outbursts and feeding disorders in their autistic kids. I've seen a little boy ceded to a state group home because his parents just couldn't handle his profound autism. I've seen so, so many kids who don't get private speech and occupational therapy, let alone enriching summer programs--kids who could really flourish if they had a little extra support. There is simply no money.

We are lucky, and I am increasingly disturbed by this privilege. This parenting journey is hard enough with all that we have. I grieve for the families whose lives are so much more difficult, through no fault of their own. I am furious at medical and educational systems that don't take care of our most vulnerable people. 

If Soren were typical, I wonder what kinds of conversations I would have had with him about his privilege. In my fantasy parenthood scripts, I imagine that I'd regularly tell him and show him how his privilege is completely unearned. We'd have dinner conversations about what his obligation is to his community because of that privilege and the damage it has exacted. There would be weighty decisions about what school we'd choose to make sure he operates fully aware of the diversity in his own city. And then there's that trip around the world. 

But none of this happens. Our conversation about privilege can't happen with Soren.

At least I don't think it can. Maybe, though, Soren is getting a message about how to treat people. About how being an Other feels. About never, ever making assumptions about a person's abilities or thoughts or feelings. Assuming best intentions. Seeing someone as an individual, not as a representative of a community.

I wish I could explain to him more about his fortunate and unearned place in this world. But maybe he already knows so much more than I do about privilege, expectations, and being an outsider. I continue to be humbled by how much this child teaches me about my assumptions.

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