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Breaking the Blame Addiction

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by Mark Osteen
Autism Asperger’s Digest
 | Online Article

When you’re the parent of a child with severe autism and read all those autism recovery stories, you feel that if you were truly a good parent, you’d have “beaten” autism too. But what if you don’t beat it? Then what?

You can point fingers. My wife Leslie and I often did—mostly at ourselves. During one period, she convinced herself that a kitchen solvent she’d used one time had caused my son Cameron’s autism. She obsessed over it for months, tormented herself, lost sleep—until we realized that Cam’s symptoms had appeared before she’d used the solvent.

Other times she attributed Cam’s disorder to an illness during pregnancy. Again she tortured herself: “Why did I make that trip when I was pregnant? I should have been more careful!” But we have no evidence it had anything to do withCam’s disorder.

We’ve also wondered if some environmental toxin did it. During Les’s pregnancy we rented our house from a tobacco farmer. Was Cam’s development warped by some toxic pesticide our landlord carried on his clothes? Our hometown in Montana is now a Superfund site, having been riddled for decades by deadly asbestos dust from a vermiculite mine. One of the boys who grew up next door to me also has an autistic son. Is this a coincidence, or a consequence of toxic chemicals?

It’s all-too tempting to blame nasty corporations and their poisons. But it’s likely that autism is at least partly genetic. Scientists have discovered abnormalities on several chromosomes that may cause the disorder, or that may interfere with the ability to metabolize certain chemicals and eventually lead to autism. It’s also probable that autism is not one disorder but many, each produced by a distinct combination of genetics and environment. If so, there’s nothing any parent could have done to prevent it. Yet that’s precisely why such explanations are unsatisfying.

No matter how rational you think you are, when something like autism strikes your family, you look for magical explanations. So I’d sometimes think: I once mocked a mentally disabled boy who lived in my neighborhood. Am I being punished for my insensitivity?

Autism is so nebulous: no tumor invades your child’s body, no visible deformity mars his looks. Blaming yourself gives you an illusion of control: if only I had done more, my child wouldn’t be autistic. What a perverse sense of power guilt gives you! On the other hand, if you can’t blame somebody or something, you feel like a helpless puppet flung around willy-nilly by a malignant or indifferent cosmos. It’s much more satisfying to find a scapegoat, even if it’s yourself.

So we understand why parents wear themselves out on blame crusades, empty their bank accounts pursuing fad therapies, and drive themselves to emotional breakdowns: they’re trying to save their children, or at least to stave off their guilt for not saving them.

It’s only human to ask, “Why us?” I’ve done my share of cursing fate. But blame is a narcotic and, like all addictions, it erects a barrier between you and your loved ones. At first it makes you feel better, then it slowly devours you. And so, gradually, we have come to grips with the most difficult recognition of all: nobody is to blame.

If you can’t place blame, what else can you do? You can accept your child as he or she is. I used to entertain elaborate fantasies of an alternate world where Cam was a typical boy. I now realize that these fantasies prevented me from truly seeing and hearing him. What disturbed me most, I finally realized, was my unconscious belief that if Cam was disabled, that meant I was disabled as well. To truly accept your child, you have to accept your own disability—your own inability to change him into someone else—perhaps that person you dreamed about before he was born, that person who would live out your unfulfilled dreams.

Acceptance doesn’t mean you stop helping the person communicate, acquire social skills, and become less rigid. Accepting autism doesn’t mean “giving up.” Rather it is liberating: no longer focused on causes or cures, you are free to celebrate the small victories—a new word learned, a successful trip to Burger King—that can make daily life with autism radiant and rewarding.

Acceptance also frees you from the scourge of guilt. Acceptance breaks your blame addiction, and tears down that barrier between you and your child and other family members. Most important, acceptance lets you love your child all over again.

Mark Osteen, a professor of English at Loyola   UniversityMaryland, is the editor of Autism and Representation (2008) and the author of One of Us: A Family’s Life with Autism.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2011. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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  1. Glenda Recker says:

    Thank you, Mark! Our 9 yr old son has Asperger’s and we are surrounded by very loving and well-meaning people who tempt us to blame someone. I’ve seen so many mother’s torture themselves trying to find the source of the problem so they can fix it, but they look outside instead of looking at the person. Sam has Asperger’s and will always has Asperger’s. What he needs is me and my husband….our love and patience and understanding and support as we navigate through life together. We adore our son and what we get in return is a beautiful child who loves us so much it almost hurts :-) Thanks, Mark, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your article. I pray it gives freedom to many struggling families.