My 'depressed mom' and 'autistic nephew': what science says about me and my family

Monday, November 21, 2011

Me (far left) with my awesome ACRJ co-workers
By Melanie Tom, Field Organizer

This is the third and final blog post for our series on autism from ACRJ staff. You can also read former posts by Akasha Orr and Shanelle Matthews.

There are a lot of alarming statistics and research out there about children of depressed mothers: we are at higher risk of getting depression as adults, we have different brains (yes…just released in 2011) and that we lack suitable coping mechanisms. This all happens because of course, we were raised in an unsuitable environment.

All the scientific conclusions on people like me (and people like my mother) can’t capture the unconditional support and love my mama has offered me throughout my life. Like how I could talk about sex with her while I was in college (use a condom!), how she stepped out of her comfort zone and visited me after a risky move to China (she hates traveling) and how I feel like I can share anything with her without risk of judgment (okay, she needs a little reminding here and there).

My mother is my deepest connection to my immediate family and while we have had periods of extreme closeness and emotional distance, it will always remain one of my most treasured relationships. Yes, her depression did have an effect on me. And yet, that is not the sum of all our parts. Despite science, her depression gave me deep respect for her. She is my heroine.

Thus, my hope is that the world can see beyond the stigma of her depression and as I look ahead for my nephew—that the world can also see all his wonderful parts, including the fact that he has autism.

I cringe every time I hear somebody use autism as an explanation for his “bad” behavior or “wild” personality (he’s autistic). From my experience, boiling him down to his autism is really more of a tool to assuage the speaker’s shame, frustration or anger. Who’s missing? Alexander’s feelings and thoughts.

Let’s not forget that Alexander is allowed to be silly, angry, quirky, and out of control—just like all of us are allowed to be. The deep desire to train him to be “normal” has created paranoia in my family that has his every move watched and assessed for progress. He’s only five—if he’s not allowed to have a meltdown now, then when? When it comes down to it, he is more than his autism. He loves little sticker books. He giggles and smiles when I kiss him on the cheek. When he was a toddler, he loved running under a blanket that I held and shook over his head.

Of course, my family is far more forgiving than greater society.

Four staff at ACRJ have young nephews that have or will probably be diagnosed with autism. Being little men of color, one can only imagine how having autism might add or exaggerate the stigma they already carry. Having autism will duly confirm what most people already feel about our people—that they are violent and hypersexual or emasculated and foreign. Now, somebody should do some scientific research on that.

And still, our strong families thrive. There are some folks with autism who land on the severe end of the spectrum, who need long-term care and support (Alexander has been diagnosed as moderate). Family, friends, partners and neighbors (shout out to National Family Caregivers Month!) come together to fight stigma and systemic inequality to provide conditions so their children can thrive. Where there is no support, family caregivers build it--and that is hard work.

Then there is the real economics of having a child with special needs, as some like to call it “expensive children in poor families.”  In order to be caregivers, low-income and no income families have to make the choice between meeting the needs of their child and the basic needs of their family. In that terrible face-off, time is the most precious resource. Yet somehow, we are all making it—but can you imagine how much better life could be with real support from institutions like our schools and government?

If science had the only say-so on who gets to be a real, legitimate family, mine would not be a frontrunner. And I am thankful for that. I am proud that we’ve had real struggles (which I’m certain which is linked to the trauma of being a family of color in the U.S.--which is a whole other blog post), and that we’re facing them head on everyday—together. So this week, I give thanks to my strong family for all that we are.

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