RECENTLY I WAS at lunch with some of our students from the Ivy Street School, a therapeutic day and residential school in Brookline for adolescents and young adults who are neurodivergent – which means they’re on the autism spectrum, have a neurological disability, and/or are managing other mental health or behavioral health diagnosis. Together, we waited in line as customers were handed their food at the counter and given space to bag their burritos and grab plasticware to go. However, when the store’s manager finished checking out one of our students, he automatically bagged the food, handing it to her with a smile.
While the store manager clearly meant to be helpful, someone with a disability might tell you that moments like these can do more harm than good. Infantilizing those with disabilities – giving unwarranted special treatment – can make them feel different and embarrassed. Yes, people with disabilities do have differences. However, we as bystanders don’t know what those are – which impacts our ability to help them in a meaningful way. Had the store manager simply asked my student if she needed help bagging her lunch, she would have said no.
This infantilization goes further than just unsolicited support. Too often, I see people talk to the caregiver but not the individual student because of a gross assumption that they can’t respond for themselves. This renders them invisible. I observe the use of a particular tone of voice that differs from how the speaker communicates with others. At another one of our school’s restaurant outings, a server thought it was okay to hand a children’s menu to one of our 16-year-old students. Imagine how that felt,
During this World Autism Acceptance Month, consider: why do we jump to infantilization? Much of it stems from our own fear of failure. When we see someone struggle, we are moved to help them. It’s a beautiful human instinct – but for people with disabilities who are often perceived as needing extra help, it creates conditions wherein we are not allowing them to fail. And, without the chance to learn from failure, how does one grow?
Allowing for failure and creating space for neurodivergent individuals to navigate society in their own way isn’t just a matter of respect; it is a broader issue of social justice and equity. Real disability justice allows for a “productive struggle” by those with cognitive challenges. It requires those ready to offer support to listen for a request. After all, it’s through this struggle that the greatest growth occurs even if, at first, it results in failure. Think about every skill you’ve acquired in life, whether it’s cooking or public speaking. We achieve proficiency through trial and error or, put another way, through a series of failures. The less we fail, the less we succeed.
At Ivy Street, we set our students up for success by allowing them to fail. Our educators, clinicians, and support staff don’t link failure with the shame most of us relate to our experience in failure. We teach our students failure with learning, failure with support, and failure with celebration.
How do we allow for failure by empowering those who are neurodivergent rather than infantilizing them? The first step is to understand and accept that this attitude is more about us than about them. We’ve all likely seen a parent telling their young children not to look at individuals with visible disabilities. At the root of this belief is a feeling of shame, a socially perpetuated belief that we should somehow feel embarrassed or bad for people with disabilities, and any direct eye contact would communicate it. Let me tell you, as someone who works with incredible students every day, they don’t want your pity. They want to be treated like everyone else and given the same opportunities as others – for failure, for success, and for support.
Another step we can take to avoid the cycle of infantilization is a simple one: ask questions. If you think someone is struggling, ask what they need, such as, “Do you need me to open this door for you?” or “Would you like help bagging your food?” Please don’t assume you know what anyone is thinking.
As we emerge from the pandemic where day-to-day social interactions were limited, let’s make a renewed and concerted effort to build a more inclusive world for the neurodivergent. Simply, this means treating everyone as equally human. Ask questions, communicate directly, and allow for the failures and successes that support our individual growth – even if it means having to push past our own discomfort.
Brandon Cardet-Hernandez is executive director of the Ivy Street School and Skills for Life in Brookline and a member of the Boston School Committee.