Mothering is not a reciprocal relationship

The autism community is on fire again over another tragic death of an autistic child at the hands of his mother. London McCabe was a 6 year old autistic boy whose mother threw him off the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Oregon last week. Among other things, NBC News reported this:

Dee Shepherd-Look, a psychology professor at California State University, Northridge, who runs an education group for mothers of autistic children, said “quite frankly, I am surprised this doesn’t happen more often.”

“These children are really unable to be in a reciprocal relationship and the moms don’t really experience the love that comes back from a child — the bonding is mitigated,” she told NBC News. “That is one of the most difficult things for mothers.”

I didn’t want to be one more autistic, autism mom ranting about how outrageous it is that they dehumanize autistic children and make it seem like they may have driven their mothers to kill them. But this just really hits home. First, because London was a little boy who loved his iPad and my son loves his iPad. Second, because my son, though verbal, does not express love in the usual ways. He doesn’t say I love you. He doesn’t hug. He doesn’t ask questions about what you’re doing or how you’re doing or anything, actually. Questions are not a thing he does very well. So I guess London tugs at my heart because he reminds me of my boy. So I am writing about this thing that I had decided not to write about. But I am going to focus on this statement by Dee Shepherd-Look. I truly hope that this was taken out of context and that this person does not really believe what this statement seems to say she does. But what I’m writing is less about the fact that she said it and more about the fact that NBC, a major news outlet, reported it in this way. The fact that they as a station would make this statement.

The first disturbing thing about this statement is the suggestion that autistic people are, in general, incapable of having a reciprocal relationship. That’s not even true. Autism has nothing to do with the ability to feel love. Many of us are capable of showing it in a ways that are totally understandable to neurotypical people. That being the case, many more of us must be able to feel and just show it in less conventional ways.

That’s not the most disturbing thing, though, because it’s not even relevant, even if it were true. I could write about all the ways that Joseph shows caring and concern for others. He does. But I’m not going to do that because it doesn’t matter. If I’m honest I don’t know if he really loves people the way I or other people understand it. He doesn’t talk about it so I don’t really know. He is very, very concrete in his thinking and understanding of the world. I don’t know if he even understands the concept of love. The suggestion that that somehow makes it excusable, even expected, for me to take his life because I don’t feel “reciprocated” in my love for him is the most disturbing thing about the above statement. He has a right to live by virtue of the fact that he is alive as God made him to be. And nothing about my response to him or my mental state outweighs that right. He is still a person, God’s image bearer, no matter how he shows love, or if he never does at all. And that is why it would be wrong to kill him, a monstrous act. And there’s no mitigating circumstance that makes it understandable to throw a little boy off a bridge.

The most ridiculous thing about that statement, is the idea that the parent-child relationship is a “reciprocal relationship.” A child can never give their parents back what their parents put into that relationship. They’re not supposed to. It’s not possible. Parents give their children life and take care of all their needs for years when a child doesn’t even understand what love is. Parents sacrifice in ways that children can not understand until they become parents or, at least, adults. And even when you do understand it, you can never give your parents back what they give you. They gave you life. It’s not reciprocal and it can never be. As a mother, you shouldn’t expect your children to reciprocate. If you do you will be disappointed. Deeply. The pay off of parenting isn’t when they pay you back, it’s when they pay it forward by caring for their own children. Or their neighbors. Or anyone. The pay off is realizing that your children understand the idea of sacrificial love, because the first place they saw it was in you.

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