Parents, do not infantilise your teenage and adult disabled children

If you’re a parent of a teenage or adult child with a disability, it’s important to avoid infantilising them. What is infantilisation? It’s treating people who are no longer children like children in a way that restricts their ability to be fully integrated with their age-peers. It’s talking to them in a condescending voice, dismissing their ideas and opinions, acting as though you will always understand them better than they understand themselves, or going out of your way to shield them from everything you think may be even slightly dangerous. It’s treating your child as though they will always be a child, no matter whether they’re 5, 15 or 35. Infantilisation is different from recognising that disabled people have support needs. That’s part of what being disabled means: being at a relative disadvantage compared to non-disabled people because we require specific supports to help us live within the community, whether that disadvantage is related to physical health, cognition, mental health, sensory processing or perception, mobility, or something else people find disabling.

It doesn’t matter what kind of disability your child has. This applies to people with chronic illnesses and intellectual, mobility, psychiatric, learning, developmental and sensory disabilities, or a combination. People with all kinds of disabilities deserve to be taken seriously and treated with respect. A teenager or an adult with an intellectual or developmental disability is still a teenager or an adult. Accommodating the support needs of an autistic 17-year-old or a 30-year-old with Down Syndrome does not mean that you should treat them as though they’re younger than their actual age. You can support people without condescending to them.

Disabled teenagers and adults are just that: teens and adults. Teens and adults may be interested in relationships, sex, college/university, dating, alcohol, parties, mature subject matter in films, TV or books, and other activities and experiences that other people their age are interested in. Pretending that disabled teens and adults don’t have these interests does them a disservice. If you don’t recognise their autonomy, they may seek out predatory people who pretend to respect them and may lead them into more danger because you didn’t talk to them about sex or drugs or relationships and realise that they, like other people their age, may want to try things out. I’ve seen other disability activists, like Cal Montgomery, talk about allowing disabled people the right to experience ‘dignity of risk’, or allowing them to try new things and potentially fail at them or learn from their mistakes. I think that’s important. Young people of all ages should have the opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t work for them. I understand the desire to protect one’s children from harm. If I had children I would want to avoid them from being harmed too. Unfortunately, you can’t always control what happens to people throughout the lifespan as much as you may try. The inherent uncertainty of life requires that parents allow their children to adapt and respond to that uncertainty. There is no such thing as a permanent cocoon, and you’ll find that your teenage or adult child is probably more resilient than you may expect. We deserve the right to try.

Infantilisation is very familiar issue to me. I myself have a developmental disability and my parents—my father in particular—infantilised me as a teenager and as a young adult. I wasn’t allowed to do what many of my peers were allowed to do; my parents claimed that I ‘wasn’t ready’ for many of the things everyone else my age seemed to be allowed to do, like going to school dances. My parents restricted what I read, thinking that I wasn’t mature enough to handle heavier themes in books, TV and films despite encountering similar subject matter in my assigned readings at school. They would force me to attend church even when I’d told them clearly that I was no longer religious; they justified this by claiming ‘in our house, we serve the Lord’, even though I was only going through the motions of practising Christianity. I was also a legal adult when this happened; I didn’t tell my parents explicitly that I was no longer Christian until I was eighteen. The appearance was what mattered, even if it was clear my beliefs had changed. When I was nineteen years old, my parents installed parental controls on my Windows account. (I found a way to disable them a few days after they installed these controls without their noticing, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that they still treated me like a small child even though I was an adult.) I was old enough to vote. In fact, I had voted when I was eighteen; I distinctly remember being eager to vote against George W Bush in 2004. My parents didn’t always give me the right to try, or if they did, they would do it begrudgingly and blame me if whatever I tried didn’t work out, instead of listening to me and working with me to identify strategies that did work for me. For them, supporting me entailed controlling me.

I should also add that recognising that your teenage or adult child with a disability is, in fact, a teenager or an adult is different from using their age as a weapon against them. You can respect their autonomy and recognise that they may need support in certain areas. Just because somebody struggles with housework and certain kinds of planning, as I do, doesn’t mean that you can tell me ‘why, you’re 32! If you want to be treated like an adult, you should be able to muster up those non-existent executive functioning skills!’ Yes, I’m an adult. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have support needs. Rather, it means I should be able to share what my support needs are and direct the means by which I receive support. Autonomy in adolescence or adulthood is about being able to make decisions about one’s own life and enlisting support to make those decisions and implement them. It is not about having to do every single thing by yourself if your disability prevents you from doing so.

Again, teenagers and adults with disabilities are still teenagers and adults. We have the right to make decisions about our lives and receive support to help us make and carry out those decisions. Having a disability doesn’t mean we’re children, or that we don’t have the right to learn by trial and error. We should be allowed to learn and grow from our experiences. Your children are not an extension of you; they’re autonomous human beings who will eventually develop their own goals and priorities in their lives that may or may not coincide with yours. Your job is to help guide and support them, not to use them as proxies for your own desires. Respecting disabled people’s autonomy helps us live healthier, more fulfilled lives.

5 thoughts on “Parents, do not infantilise your teenage and adult disabled children

  1. Great article! Im sorry that happened to you. I would add that teachers and schools can be like that too. My school not only did that, but they encouraged my parents to and, even, gave them ideas, like at a conference that told them to set up a joint bank account with me, instead of letting me have my own. This lasted until I was in my early 30s. They also wanted me to live in supervised housing!

    • I’m so sorry that your school did that to you. That’s completely ridiculous; they should have taught you how to manage your money instead, or have a designated person to support you with finances if that’s an area in which you needed support. The same applies to supervised housing.

      • This is a good article about disabled teenagers and adults. It should be made perfectly illegal for a school or rehabilitation center to encourage parents or other family members of teenagers or adults with disabilities to be infantized. And these special needs Schools or rehabilitation centers should also be made to teach disabled teenagers and adults how to manage money in accessible ways or if managing money is a problem for a person with a disability in which the disability itself hinders a person from managing money, said disabled adult once they turn 18-years-old should be allowed by law to decide whom they would want to provide this type of support as if the disability did not hinder the function of managing money in the first place.

        And under no uncertain terms should a school or rehabilitation center encourage the parents of disabled teenagers and adults adults to seek supervised housing, or even encourage the parents of disabled teenagers and adults to use any big funding a disabled person may receive due to some grace of God, to purchase the family nest with. Instead that funding should by law be automatically placed into a special needs trust fund in a way that does not jeopardize any governmental benefits the disabled teenagers and adults adults may be entitled to by law. If such disabled teenagers and adults big windfall from God does end up being used to help purchase the family nest, said teenagers or adult is deemed automatically by law to hold a second mortgage along side the bank until both the bank and the disabled teenager and adult is paid fully with the same interest rate as the mortgage.

        Doing it this way has a great potential for discouraging other types of practices of which I will not get into here. We are not supposed to be a third world nation.

  2. My father once told me that the two most important things in parenting were “to be honest with your children and to let them grow up”.

  3. Finn Gardiner, thank you for writing this fantastic advice. My son is a 17-year-old, autistic who does not speak reliably. Two years ago, he learned to type his thoughts, and I learned so much. While I did not realize it, I had previously been thinking of him as much younger than his age, as, on the surface, he seemed very young. What I learned through his typing is that he has similar goals and interests as others his age. He had been frustrated, because people tended to take his scripting about Blues Clues and Thomas as his special interest, when actually, he had been stuck in motor loops of repetitive talking in order to calm himself. It’s very simple now, I can ask him about his goals, and what kind of support he needs to accomplish them. HOWEVER, if I couldn’t ask him, I could assume that he is indeed a 17-year-old guy with his own perspective. A guy who needs to make decisions for himself. A person.

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