Monday, February 1, 2016

The problem with the term "Age Appropriate" regarding autism

This is a topic that tends to be a soap box of mine meaning that this a topic  I am very passionate about.  In the past there has been concerns by parents and professionals of getting their students or child into developing more interests that are "age appropriate" in order for them to fit in with their peers.  This gets emphasized during adolescence as teens abandon interests from their childhood and develop more mature interests.  Parents tend to get concerned at this point because they see that their own son or daughter are still clinging onto interests from childhood and worry that they will miss important social opportunities because of their child's immature interests.   I've read numerous articles and books about this topic and how it is recommended on gradually "fading"  childhood interests and replacing it with more age appropriate activities.   Others recommend having a neurotypical "peer buddy"  mentor the autistic teen into developing more typical interests that are more appropriate for middle or high schoolers.   These tactics that are used to address the issue of age appropriate interest are part of a broader viewpoint that since people with autism struggle so much with social situations it is the reasons why their child cannot develop the same interests as their peers.  In other words, this viewpoint stresses that people with autism are incompetent and don't know any better and the "disability" is the reason why the teen or young adult still clings to childhood comforts like Hello Kitty or Sesame Street.

The problem with the term age appropriate is that it is an arbitrary term that is rigidly use in order to keep people in their place in society to support someone else's view of normality.  However the application of this term has the effect of oppressing other forms of individual expression and self identity.  This is exactly how I felt during my own adolescence.  When I was in middle school, I had a huge preoccupation with Hello Kitty, Disney Princesses and Barbie.  I  use to wear a Barbie hat to school and out in the community (the only time I would wear a hat) along with Disney Princess T-shirts.  I was happy with my interests and choices and didn't give a damn of what my people thought or what my peers were into.  I knew exactly what my peers were into (at my school they were into Abercrombie and Fitch and Juicy) but I just didn't care.  However my mother was one of those parents who became concern that I was still into wearing Princess shirts and my juvenile interests as I was going into high school while the other girls were moving on to more mature interests like fashion and makeup.  She was concerned that I didn't have a fashion sense and I would be limited socially because of it.  This was one of the reasons why my behaviorist (who is lovely by the way) was brought in to work with me.   I know my mom had good intentions since she wanted the best for me and wanted to make sure that I was able to be functional socially.  However, I did not perceive it that way and I felt that having "juvenile" interests like Hello Kitty and Disney was wrong.  Perhaps what really lowered my self esteem was when my mom and I were futured in an article on Newsweek  magazine in 2006 which was the fall of my freshman year of high school.  In that article,  my mom discussed how I was a high school student and how that developing more teen interests was a difficult task for me because of my autism.  That article also painted me in a light of "incompetence" and that autism was the cause for me of liking Disney Princess and Hello Kitty rather than considering it as a part of my individuality.   This article really affected my self esteem and being comfortable of my own identity.  As a result I developed a negative and self destructive script in my head that I still carry with me (that  I am slowly learning to let go) into my young adulthood that it is wrong to like cartoon characters or activities  designed for children because it is not considered "age appropriate" and that people will judge me for it.

The good news is that society is slowly changing.  Years later in college, I rediscovered my interests of Hello Kitty and Disney Princess which gave way into me liking My Little Pony, Frozen and Monster high.  The difference between today and back in my middle school days is that there are more adults and teens  both disabled and nondisabled alike who are open about liking Hello Kitty, Frozen etc.  This is evident in the pages I follow on instagram which is the beauty of social media.  I even get compliments when I carry my Hello Kitty purse instead of eyerolls and judgmental comments.    There is also evidence of this paradigm shift as I see more character shirts for adults in stores.  Occasionally the negative script I developed in my head criticizing my choices in liking cartoon characters resurfaces but I am learning to "let it go" thanks to coaching.   The take away from this personal story and this blog post is that when we focus so much on developing age appropriate we sometimes oppress the person's right to express their self identity and individuality and that we forget that there are adults and teens out there without autism who like cartoon characters which shows that childlike interests are not exclusive to autism.  A person's interests and hobbies does not determine their maturity level since there are a lot of successful and accomplished people (including your blogwriter who has a college degree in psychology) who are big kids of heart.  I think that it's time we move past the term "age appropriate" in the autism community and to embrace each person with autism and their interests and hobbies regardless if its developmentally on target or not.

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