Is it okay to use the “Autism card”?

September 12, 2017 Published by

If you see a child in a wheelchair, it is easy to understand why they would need a ramp to get up a step. 

However, it’s much harder for those who are not familiar with ‘invisible’ needs and disabilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), to recognise that assistance and support are essential to the child’s wellbeing.

For example, parents may benefit from parking in a disabled bay if their child has a tendency to run away from them and has a lack of traffic awareness. Or, the child may struggle with noises and crowds – in which case, access to quiet areas and priority boarding at the airport could prevent a meltdown. In such instances, ‘playing the Autism card’ – explaining to the relevant staff that your child has ASD and will need additional support – can make life a whole lot easier.

Disabled Parking Space

But while awareness of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) is improving, many people don’t understand why some children get special assistance when they look totally ‘normal’. None of us like queuing, so why should a child with ASD get to jump to the front? There are plenty of other children who don’t like queuing and who cause a fuss, but their parents either choose to not put them in the situation or use it as a lesson in life.

This attitude of “Why should they get special treatment?” can make it difficult for some parents who may feel awkward and judged by others; so they avoid accessing the support that would benefit their child. Although we needn’t worry about what other people think, many of us do; even though our main concern is for our child, in certain situations we cannot help taking other people’s views and opinions into consideration.

We talked to some parents of children with ASD, and found a mixed reaction to using the ‘Autism card’. One mum of a 13 year-old girl with ASD said that she tries not to bring her daughter’s ASD to people’s attention, as she wants her daughter to have, “as normal a life as possible”. Her daughter is high functioning so it can be very hard to tell that she has ASD but, in certain situations, she can become extremely anxious and have a meltdown.  Being 13 people tend to stare, as it is not typical behaviour for a teenager; this is when her mum sometimes points out that her daughter has ASD. People are generally understanding, but there are those who say it is just an excuse for bad behaviour.

Girl feeling sad

Labelling is a whole debate of it’s own – do labels constrain, support, harm or even empower children with SEND? Particularly as children get older, they may not want to be labeled; although they can’t control their anxieties and reactions, they could be sensitive to having their disability pointed out to others. On the other hand they may feel that it’s an important part of their identity and, rather than hiding it, may enjoy using it as a symbol of pride.

When using the ‘Autism card’ it helps to weigh up the pros and cons; all parents want their children to have positive experiences, but they don’t necessarily want to shout about their child’s ASD and draw attention to it. Those who don’t live with SEND may struggle to understand the challenges it can bring; while we want to encourage empathy and acceptance, it’s also important to realise that this is a difficult thing to truly appreciate without experience. The parents we spoke to don’t want to label their child, but know they have to if they want to access the support they need. One mum described using the ‘Autism card’ as putting up a signpost for your child to get the necessary help.

There are certain situations that children with ASD find stressful which is different for each child, but parents know the triggers and learn ways to manage the situation.  Letting people know that your child has ASD can open a door to other methods of support that you didn’t even know existed – access to quiet areas and priority boarding in some airports, passes to skip queues in theme parks, special shopping sessions in some supermarkets. When taking this into account, labelling your child seems a positive move as it opens up numerous pathways to make their journey through life less stressful.

boy playing in the playground

One example of this comes from a woman who has colleagues with ASD. “It has definitely helped that everybody knows [about their ASD] and it has made the quality of working life much better,” she says, explaining that “knowledge enhances understanding”.

As we have seen, parents shouldn’t be afraid to mention their child’s ASD in order to get the support they need; they aren’t getting ‘special treatment’, they are getting fair and inclusive treatment that gives children with ASD the same opportunities as everybody else. Why should they avoid flying abroad for a holiday, or never go shopping or to the cinema with their parents? At the same time, parents need to be aware of limiting their child by over-labelling them; remember, “Autistic may describe them, but autism does not define them.” 

Disabled Parking by Stevepj2008 licensed under CC BY 2.0 

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This post was written by Claire Gillies

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