Our autism-phobia

When my daughter failed to meet a developmental milestone, I realized how anxious parents these days have become

Topics: Real Families, Autism, Life stories, Children, Motherhood, Parenting, Editor's Picks,

Our autism-phobia (Credit: ollyy via Shutterstock/Salon)

Sometimes I wish I had never been trained to diagnose autism. Because of my expertise, people often ask me about their children’s development. “Do you think he’s OK?” a friend might inquire, darting nervous glances at her toddler. Often what triggers concern is that the child is late to meet a particular developmental milestone — not uttering his first words at the textbook age of 12 months, for example.

If you’re the parent of a young child, milestones are everywhere: in the parenting books, on the questionnaires at the pediatrician’s office. And for the most part, awareness of milestones is a good thing. I saw this firsthand during my clinical training. Parents who recognized early on that their children weren’t meeting milestones, and whose pediatricians took their concerns seriously and made the appropriate referrals, had their children evaluated and treated sooner. There’s plenty of research showing that early autism intervention leads to better outcomes; for some kids, having parents who know and care about milestones has probably made a big difference.

But I’m worried that we’ve gone too far, that we’ve come to ascribe too much importance to milestones. And I can’t help thinking that autism awareness is part of the problem. The ad campaigns imploring us to “know the signs” have been so successful that we’ve become hyper-vigilant, on guard for the slightest hint that our child might be “on the spectrum.” We’ve all seen the Autism Speaks ads, for example: An adorable child is featured engaging in some activity, such as downhill skiing, with the accompanying text scrolled across the image like a warning:

Odds of a child becoming an Olympic athlete: 1 in 29,000

Odds of a child being diagnosed with autism: 1 in 110

Let’s put aside for a moment the possibility that autism is over-diagnosed, as some experts have argued. Even if the true rate of the disorder is as high as these ads claim, that still means one’s chances of having a child who does not have autism are over 99%. But next to the highly unlikely outcome of having a child who becomes an Olympic athlete (or the next Tommy Hilfiger, or a pop singer, in other iterations of the ad), having a child who is diagnosed with autism seems almost inevitable.

You Might Also Like

It’s no wonder that “autism-phobia” seems to have taken hold among new parents. And from what I can tell, they’re not the only ones. Friends who are pregnant — and even a few who are only contemplating having children — tell me that the possibility of having a child with autism weighs on them. Their unborn or imaginary child hasn’t even had a chance to fall behind, and already, they’re worried.

I had my own brush with milestone mania a few months ago, when my daughter failed the gross motor section of the screening I completed at her one-year check up. By that point, I knew Maya’s motor skills were behind those of other kids her age — she wasn’t yet pulling up to stand, something I knew most kids did by about 10 months — but I hadn’t been worried about it until her pediatrician suggested we have her evaluated by a physical therapist. Based on the results of the evaluation, Maya qualified for physical therapy, which she recently started.

Perhaps in this case, my expertise in diagnosing autism has been helpful — I know enough about the disorder to see that Maya doesn’t fit the profile. And the pediatrician was confident that there wasn’t any other neurological issue. So why did we need to do anything at all? Why not simply let her develop at her own pace?

I think competitiveness is part of the answer, and another reason for our milestone obsession. I hate to admit it, but it bothers me that my daughter is “behind.” And I know I’m not alone. Friends have described to me the twinge they feel when they hear about another friend’s child reading or riding a bike without training wheels at the age of 4, knowing their own child is nowhere near reaching that milestone.

I’m sure parental competitiveness is nothing new and cuts across culture and social class. But I wonder if it’s particularly strong among contemporary upper-middle-class American parents. As Nicholas Day pointed out recently in Slate, there’s evidence that, compared with parents from other cultures, American parents are more concerned with creating a stimulating environment for our children. Maybe our obsession with milestones is the earliest manifestation of our preoccupation with enrichment.

In the past few months, Maya has made a lot of progress in her gross motor skills — maybe because of the therapy, or maybe just because — pulling herself up on anything she can find, clambering up the stairs almost too quickly for us to keep up with her. I’m trying to focus on enjoying her successes for their own sake, on taking pleasure in the little grunts of concentration she makes as she tries to stand up on her own, the proud smile that spreads across her face when she finally does it. I’m trying to ignore thoughts of her “catching up” to other kids. It’s hard, but I think I owe it to her.

Jennifer Richler is a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Indiana. Follow her on Twitter.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...