Providing support for our autistic teen or adult is a necessary part of being a parent, and this is often one of our top concerns. But as we do so, we can unknowingly fall into a default mechanism that infantilizes the individual and treats them as if they are not capable of being their own person. We typically do this with the underlying belief that we are giving the best support, and that we have our teen or adult’s best interests in mind, however, infantilizing them is unnecessary, and innately dangerous.
What is Infantilization?
Infantilization is the prolonged treatment of a person as if they are a child, even though their mental capacity is greater than that of a child. This treatment occurs even though there is nothing about their mental, physical, social, or intellectual well-being that requires such treatment.
The behaviors commonly characterized as infantilizing by parents typically fall into three main categories:
- Babying children/adults – assuming that the individual cannot do the things that they are developmentally capable of and stifling their ability to try
- Being judgmental and disapproving – expressing severe negative reactions to a person’s desire to branch out and have their own unique ideas or skills
- Rejecting or interfering in moves for independence – thwarting an individual’s ability to grow by disallowing them to do (age-appropriate) things
A. Stout, autistic Bachelor of Arts holder, Magna Cum Laude graduate, and writer, describes the different forms that infantilization can take on in her blog:
- Changing speech patterns – using baby talk, dumbing-down vocabulary, speaking slower, speaking louder, and speaking in a higher pitch
- Using pet names – sweetie, honey, etc., as in the context of an acquaintance, rather than a familial or parental relationship
- Speaking for a person or not speaking directly to them – directing comments away to a parent or caregiver when the person can speak for themselves
- Making a decision on behalf of a person who is capable of making their own – disregarding their opinion on a certain matter
- Being overly protective – withholding information from a person who is old enough to handle it (e.g., not giving the sex talk) or forbidding an age-appropriate activity
The Dangers of Infantilization
Infantilization, even when it is well-intended, per A. Stout:
“…Is frustrating and insulting. [It] demeans a person. It means treating someone as if they are below you, which is obviously disrespectful and hurtful. It comes with some more insidious consequences. [Such as] withholding information about sex from a person…how will they know about sexual abuse…how will they know about consent and saying ’no’ when something is inappropriate? It can erase their voice. Adults with disabilities may find themselves ignored or dismissed, based on the assumption that they do not understand the situation at hand. Infantilization can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assuming a person cannot be independent and make their own choices. How will an autistic individual ever gain independence when others do everything for them and call all the shots for them?”
Finn Gardiner, disabled adult, writer, designer, and speaker, denotes that his parents did not always give him the right to try to be independent, and instead of listening and working with him to identify strategies that did work, they controlled him.
“These actions are not just insulting and frustrating, but could also be dangerous. A teen or adult with a [disability] still has desires concomitant with their chronological age, including a desire for autonomy. An individual who has been infantilized may gravitate toward peers who seem to respect their autonomy. If that same individual has never been educated about sex, drugs, or other issues relevant to their chronological age, they could be an easy target for abuse and exploitation.”
The main impacts of infantilization can go on for years, even after the dysfunction has stopped, per a discussion with Sherry Benton, Ph.D., practicing therapist and founder of TAO Connect, at verywellmind.com, and many of the effects are the same:
- Extreme anxiety about making decisions
- Lack of confidence
- Identity confusion
- Inability to commit
- Lack of direction
What To Do Instead
In the podcast, Moving into Adulthood with RDI®, Dr. Rachelle Sheely and Dr. Sarah Wayland discuss the importance of shifting our focus as parents to empower our children, and to focus on the areas that we need to work on rather than doing the work for them – or denying them the chance to make their own life-learning decisions.
It is important to:
- Spotlight the problem and not the solution. Help your child brainstorm, but do not solve the problem for them. When we shift from the problem (the product) to the process, it empowers our children to make their own decisions, figure out what is working, and what is not working, and figure out how to get through it by themselves. But, we have to show them (presume competence) that we actually believe they can do that.
- Look at your child’s toolbox for weaknesses and help them address their vulnerabilities. This does not mean infantilizing or overcompensating. Rather, focus on what areas need work. How are they with problem-solving, flexibility, teamwork, relationship building, analysis and appraisal, perspective, self-awareness, ongoing growth and development, uncertainty management, creativity, and innovation?
- Help your child build a library of personal knowledge (Dynamic Intelligence) that they can retrieve independently as needed. This library is ushered in through everyday life activities that you, the parent guide, participate in with your child. You do not do the work for your child, nor do you fear or think that they cannot succeed at it. Your child develops emotional referencing, social coordination, declarative language, flexible thinking, relationship information processing, and foresight and hindsight.
Resources for Education, Connection, and Support
It is really difficult to parent alone with autism, and none of us are perfect at it. We all want our children to reach success in life. Whether you are new to the world of autism or have spent years trying to find answers, we can put you in touch with the resources and people to help you move forward. If you’d like to talk to RDI® professionals, parents just like you, and adults on the spectrum, join our online learning community.
Click to enlarge infographic.