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Revealing autism

An honest, raw, thought-provoking and challenging reflection from a parent of a child with autism.


I am hiding a part of myself; my right arm hooked around my waist, my hand tightly curled in my back pocket. I stand to one side and hold a conversation like this, replying to other parents, my arm out of sight. I finish, then slip away to the carpark. The noise and movement of the school drop off is over, and I pull my arm out from behind me. A small, pale pattern trails up my forearm, the marks of teeth still in my wrist. I breathe. I have been hiding my right hand. I am hiding bite marks.


I am the parent of an autistic child. The school drop off that morning had followed an outburst of panic, a melt­down. It happens often in our home – shouting, kicking, sometimes biting – when our child becomes overwhelmed. You learn to hide it; closing the front door when it starts, parking further away, turning down invitations if it all seems too much. You learn to hide your right hand when it is bitten. In a sense, you learn to hide a part of your child.


“I am afraid of how people might see them, of what society might do”

Autism is becoming more visible, with Australia having some of the highest rates of autism diagnosis among children in the world. One in 25 children aged seven to 14 are diagnosed on the autism spec­trum, but people don’t always know what to think about it. Australia is looking at autism more than ever, but as the parent of an autistic child you can sometimes face a dilemma; autism can’t be hidden in our society anymore, but people don’t always know how to respond.


What is autism?

Autism is a collective term for a group of neurodevelopmental traits that can affect someone’s social interactions, communication, behaviours and sensi­tivities. Autism is naturally occurring and lifelong, presenting in different ways, with different degrees of challenges. Some may consider autism a disorder or a disability, seeing the ways it impairs someone, and think it can be treated or fixed. Until the 1980s, autistic children with more significant challenges were often institutionalised. 

It can be harder for autistic children to make friends, learn, and participate in our communities as a result. When autistic children are unable to do these things, they can often be excluded, disadvantaged, even punished. Autistic young people in Australia today are less likely to finish school and more likely to encounter the juvenile justice system. A 13-year-old autistic boy was targeted online by police in 2021 and charged with terror offences, after his parents had first sought help from authorities. (A court dismissed the charges last year.)


I know how some people can respond to my child, when a meltdown comes, when it all becomes too much. I know how some see the shouting, the kicking, the biting. I know how my child might be viewed by schools, workplaces, strangers, the police. I know what some may think – that there is something wrong with my child, that they are bad. I don’t want to hide any part of my child, but I am afraid of how people might see them, of what society might do.


Made in God’s image

I sometimes think about the biblical story of creation. The story, at the beginning, portrays the world as a place made up of distinctions, differences that grow over time. The world is made of light and dark, earth and water, and the story sees humanity as part of this creation. People are shaped from the earth, but with something divine within. This story tells us that creation, with all its differences, is “good”, and that all people are made in the image of God.


“No autistic child should be hidden”

The story our society can tell about autism is often incomplete. The traits of autism can be impairing, but these traits can also be unique, allowing for passion, intelligence and joy. Some might see my child as bad, but they don’t see my child the way I do, how sweetly my child sings, how tightly they hold you, how big they smile. (It’s the smile that stays with you.)


Letting go

There isn’t something wrong with autistic people, there’s something wrong with how we can see them. We can choose to see autism anew, as something unique, to be included and empowered. Autism has its difficulties, but there isn’t something wrong with autistic people because they’re differ­ent. There is something divine in how they are different, a revelation of God.


I am holding a part of myself, my arm hooked around a small waist, my right hand curled around my child’s. I stand with them, as they hug me tight. The noise of the school drop off is over­whelming. I breathe, with my child, and when they are ready, I let them go. I still don’t get this right all the time. I have learned to hide parts of my child. I must also learn to hold them, and to let them go, to let people see them, and all that they are.

“Bite marks fade, but have you seen that smile?” 

Autism is more and more visible in Australia, so we are going to have to tell a new story about it, one of inclusion and empowerment. This story must start at the beginning, with goodness at the heart of all autistic people, and must go on to change schools, workplaces, churches, the health and justice systems.


No autistic child should be hidden. They are a picture of the divine and the unique differences that make up the world. Bite marks fade, but have you seen that smile? It’s a revelation.


*Article by a Salvos Online staff writer. Names withheld to protect privacy.


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