An Exceptional Path: An Ethnographic Narrative Reflecting on Autistic Parenthood from Evolutionary, Cultural, and Spiritual Perspectives

Filed Under (Acceptance, autism, Autistic Self Advocacy, Parenting, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 04-05-2010

Thanks to a friend who passed along this paper (titled above) by Dawn Eddings Prince (formerly known as Dawn Prince Hughes) published in ETHOS. It is an endearing story of a mother with Aspergers to her autistic son.

Unlike Dawn, I am not a woman with Aspergers nor a primate anthropologist who has garnered much of what she has learned about humanity through primates. If you have not read her book, Songs of A Gorilla Nation it is a must-read. It has left its imprint upon me for years now. No, I am a mother of an autistic child, similar but not just like, her child, relating to my son in unexpected ways, finding my points of context from art and my own awkward experiences growing up — trying to overlay those in helping me understand Adam’s path. My stress has mainly come from outsiders who have put the pressure on us to change and be something other than what we are. I am glad to understand this stress and pressure in order to better help Adam chart his course.

From the time I began The Joy of Autism blog — and been downright attacked for it when it first started in 2005 (see right margin for the archive) — I was incapable of viewing Adam as that “blight” and “burden” that autistics were named. Everything Adam did was a downright miracle to me. Today, Adam — a kind, affable, giggly boy, has developed a curiousity and way of learning that never ceases to expand my own world and way of seeing things. Like Dawn’s son, however, Adam is changing, developing tics. He is growing into a world that he is beginning to understand in ways that I knew (and feared) he would. One could say it happens to all parents. Yet Dawn’s essay, however, cites a few exceptionalities to the growth.

People fear each other. The flavor of distance seems to me to be how a community organizes itself. The codes of distance constitute the law—for the living and the dead, so people close the lid on the toilet when they sit down to talk to someone else in the bathroom, signaling that they don’t intend to dominantly mark their territory in the midst of the other; and men can’t pick up and hold a crying child who is a stranger. This is why people always smile and say hello more often when they are on a trail in the forest, far from help, than when they are on a city street.

Unfortunately, the chief danger and distance he was learning is that people can tell you that what you are isn’t what you should be. I knew that the children at school were teasing him for talking to plants and bugs and rocks. His teacher told us he had a learning disability and had some attention deficit problems. He was starting to not be able to sleep at night and had anxiety attacks. Where he had always been an easy child he started to throw himself to the floor and scream over the smallest challenges. He started to be unable to go to restaurants because the lights hurt his eyes and the normal noise of conversation hurt his ears—he would cover them with his hands and rock, trying to get under the table. He developed strict routines and would fall apart if something unexpected happened. He started to develop tics. He was becoming contextually autistic.

This essay is beautifully written. Remembering Teryk, her son, playing in the prototype sensory room set up at The Sheraton Hotel in Toronto, where I introduced myself to Dawn and received such a warm hug from her, I feel we share a bond beyond that introduction by way of this piece on the special privilege of raising an autistic child. It is the bond of easing ourselves into the world as both autistic people and as their parents amidst the deluge of questions, quandaries and challenges that continue to face our children all the while loving them and getting them for who they are. And who better than Dawn?


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.