Mom Condemns “Inspirational” Stories for Creating Unrealistic Expectations for People with Autism
Inspirational stories are wonderful things. They have the power to change our perspectives, challenge us, ignite a new fire within us. But as we all know, too much of a good thing isn’t good at all, and sometimes people take inspirational stories too far. So far, in fact, that the disability community has nicknamed them “inspiration porn” because of the way they objectify disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. And at the same time, they imply that disabled people who haven’t met unrealistic goals somehow have less value than those who have.
Leigh Merryday Porch knows better than most the pain of reading an inspirational story that she just can’t live up to. She has a young son with autism and has always done her best to give him the best resources, teach him everything she can, and just be a good mom in general. But no amount of trying will ever rid her son of autism, and she’s tired of being mom-shamed because her son isn’t perfect.
Porch says she gets tagged in these inspirational stories all the time by well-meaning friends who want to remind her that there’s hope for her son to do more with his life than doctors believed he was capable of. And Porch knows that’s true. But there’s a limit, and hearing some of these stories can be like a stab to the heart for a mom who’s doing everything she can to help her son and also encourage the world to accept him the way she does.
In an attempt to help the world better understand her son and her position as his mother, Porch wrote an eloquent post on Facebook explaining why she hates inspirational stories, and we couldn’t have said it better ourselves:
“They’re stories of autistic kids who didn’t talk but do now, children who sing the national anthem, young women who compete in beauty pageants, and those on the spectrum who graduate from college. And you don’t mind the stories, because human beings persevering in the face of adversity is a beautiful thing,” Porch writes. “But invariably, somewhere in the story is a quote that goes something like this: When experts told her her son would never talk, never have friends, never graduate, she declared, ‘Over my dead body.'”
Porch goes on to explain that for some parents of children with disabilities, these stories come as a slap in the face, because they imply that the amount of progress a child makes is directly proportionate to the degree of effort the parent puts in.
“Some disabilities cannot be overcome. They can be accepted, worked with, planned for, and accommodated, but no amount of parental love and determination can erase them,” Porch continues. “Callum is not going to go to law school. He’s simply not wired for that, and I can’t rewire him. The fact that I can accept that and love him unconditionally does not reflect him having not been raised by someone willing to try harder.”
Read that last sentence again. For some of us, this is what we’ve needed to hear far more than any of those inspirational stories. We just need to know that we’re doing a good job. Our kids may not be defying the odds, but it’s not because we didn’t try everything in our power to help them.
In the last paragraph of her amazing post, Porch explains that what a good parent of a child with disabilities really does is to advocate for their child and give them the best opportunities possible.
“Because—over my dead body—will he be relegated as somehow less worthy for not doing the unexpected and unrealistic,” she writes. “The presence of an autistic adult in the world who doesn’t make the newspaper is not a statement of failure. Not of society, not of his family, and certainly not of himself. And other than steadfastly insisting he be given every reasonable opportunity any other person has to live, learn, and grow, no other declarations need be made—and no dead bodies required.”
If you’re an autism parent, we hope Porch’s words stick with you. If you’re trying your best to help your child navigate the world and also trying to get the world to be more accepting of your child, you’re a fantastic parent. You truly are. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not doing enough just because your child isn’t achieving unrealistic goals.
Thank you, Leigh Merryday Porch, for taking the time to explain the damage that “inspiration porn” can cause to the disability community. Thank you for celebrating the parents and children who aren’t media-worthy miracles. Thank you for standing up for your son and encouraging others to stand up for their kids as well.