There’s a recurring theme running through the stereotypical portrayal of autism in cyberspace. Along with ‘cut off from the world’ and ‘self-injurious’ there’s very often the dramatic ‘smearing faeces everywhere’, which conjures up very unpleasant images indeed plus a whole bundle of sympathy for the plight of the poor parent having to clean up this foul mess on a regular basis. It also leaves the marked impression that there’s no hope for the poor lost soul doing the smearing. Of course this smearing is abnormally occurring in the older autistic child since typically developing children have been known to do this sort of thing – before the age of 2.
I never had a reason to question the veracity of this assertion until Mr John Best Jr used it and that gave me pause. Mr Best is not exactly the shy and retiring type. Generally he lets you know his views quite forcefully. He runs a weblog with the title ‘hatingautism’ after all and it would be reasonable to surmise, so all consuming is his plight in raising his autistic son, that if faeces smearing really had been a major and enduring part of the autistic scenery post infancy, we would have heard about it long ago and rather often. But no, there it was - this solitary reference – very un-Best-like.
Now once the seed of doubt is planted, it niggles. How often do we hear this ‘faeces smearing’ descriptor of parenting in extremis? On reflection, but this could very easily be recall bias, it seems that the parents making the call are usually referring to OPKs – Other People’s Kids. In which case, this could very well be the very stuff of myth making. Statements are made with a dramatic flourish – seems to garner lots of sympathy. So it is repeated endlessly and urban legend here we come!
But, lets not lose sight of the fact that these kids are autistic. Autistic kids have some rather entrenched sensory sensitivities – particularly to texture. You won’t find either lima beans or scungy slimy things including bread and butter pudding in my household. The unimaginable, to me, is how an autistic kid could stand the sensory insults involved in handling faeces. Here, my imagination simply quits.
So, is this for real? Do autistic kids smear faeces as a rule? Are the perpetrator’s really autistic would be my question.
So, when you hear this descriptor, check to see if this is about their child or an OPK, whose parent might very well have heard it about another OPK and so on. We get exaggerated to on a regular basis, so I think it’s reasonable to be a little more sceptical. Of course, if this is really real we’d better know about that too.