Dear Prudence

Spectrum of Support

Prudie advises a letter writer whose sister refuses to make special accommodations for her son’s autism spectrum disorder.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

Mallory Ortberg: Good morning! Let’s chat.

Q. Adult table, kid table: Both of my older sister’s children are on the autism spectrum. Her eldest son is 13 and my sister makes sure he gets to experience everything just the same as the other kids; he’s never treated any differently from anyone else in the family. She has taken the same approach with her younger son, “Johnny” (4), but he has a lot more trouble with social interactions. At our mom’s birthday party a few months ago, the older boy was quiet but seemed to enjoy things. Johnny had a meltdown and ended up biting me when I tried to stop him from smashing a glass table. There have been other incidents too.

With the holidays coming up, I’m just not sure how he’s going to cope. I’m not sure how to approach my sister and say “I think we need to make some accommodations for Johnny to make sure he doesn’t get stressed out” without her hearing “he will never be as functional as other kids.” She’s very protective of them and of their potential to do whatever they want—and I don’t want to undermine that.

Any ideas on what to say or what form the accommodations should take? He’s a sweet kid, but it can’t be nice to get so upset you end up biting people.

A: The sample script you’ve just proposed sounds excellent. Since you’re worried that all your sister will hear is “your son needs to be excluded from the rest of the children, and I’m convinced I can predict his future,” acknowledge that. Point out that it can’t possibly be fun for him to be in a situation where he’s so stressed out he starts to melt down, and that it would be good to have multiple options available for him (a quieter room to retreat to, someone to take a walk with him) when the noise and sensory overload become overwhelming. There’s nothing incompatible about what you’re suggesting and the fact that your sister is protective of her kids. You’re not trying to push her son to the side because he’s different, you’re trying to acknowledge and anticipate reality, and help make sure that he’s as comfortable and safe as possible (he could have been seriously hurt if he’d broken a glass table!) before heading into a high-pressure situation.

Q. No asexuals: I just told my boyfriend that I’m asexual. It’s taken me a long time to accept this about myself, and that it doesn’t mean I’m broken in any way, and saying it aloud feels like a weight off my shoulders. The problem is that now my boyfriend says we have to break up. I’ve told him that even though I don’t want to have sex, it doesn’t bother me to have it sometimes if it makes him happy. But he said that felt gross and “pervy.”

It feels like I’m being punished for realizing something that helped me so much. It also hurts to find out that my boyfriend, who said he loved me, really just liked sex. Is he being unfair? I think I’ve made every effort to make this work, and lots of people have sex when they aren’t that into it, right?

A: I’m genuinely excited for you, that you’ve been able to arrive at a more fully realized sense of your own identity! That’s wonderful. I encourage you to give your boyfriend space to do the same thing. It’s not a value judgment on you as a person if he decides he would prefer to have a partner who is also sexual, rather than willing to have sex periodically for his sake. It just means the two of you aren’t compatible sexually. He’s not trying to “punish” you by ending your relationship, he’s saying, “What you want out of a relationship and what I want don’t really overlap.” Nor does it mean he didn’t genuinely love you! Sex may not be a crucial part of how you experience love, but it clearly is for your boyfriend. Sexual activity isn’t a lesser or baser form of expressing love, and just as you wouldn’t want your boyfriend to judge you for being asexual, don’t try to diminish his experience by saying he must not really love you, or that he just wants to have sex all the time.

Whether “lots of people” have certain sexual arrangements that work for them in their relationships isn’t the point. The point is that what you want, and what your boyfriend wants, aren’t compatible. The upside is, now that you’re out about your asexuality, you’ll be able to bring that self-knowledge and clarity to future relationships—and that’s not a punishment at all.

Q. Is he or isn’t he?: I just found out that my husband might have another son. Seven years ago, before we met, my husband had a brief relationship with a woman. Shortly after, he found out through a mutual acquaintance that she was pregnant. The woman claimed that a different man was the father. My husband was skeptical, but he took her word for it. Fast-forward seven years, and with some sleuthing by my sister-in-law on Facebook, there are pictures of the child and he looks remarkably like my husband. I found all of this out when a message from my sister-in-law popped up on my husband’s phone while I was using it.

I’m dealing with two feelings: betrayal that my husband never told me about the possibility that he might have another child, as well as sadness for a child who may eventually learn that he’s been lied to his whole life. To complicate matters, the mother and father of the child have split up, and the child is being raised by the father. He appears to be a good father, and my husband and I agree that we don’t want to take the child away from the family that has been raising him his whole life. But if this is my husband’s child, we would like to meet him, and for him to know his brother and sister. Should we pursue a DNA test so we can know for sure? Or should we just let this go and accept the possibility that this child may eventually find out one day and show up on our doorstep wondering where we’ve been his whole life?

A: Given that this child has spent the last seven years with the mother and father he already knows, I’m not sure your vague desire —“we would like to know him”—is sufficient cause to show up and potentially upend his entire life. Your husband’s initial response upon finding out he may have been a father was strangely inert—he was at least partly convinced the child was his, but decided not to ask for a paternity test and find out for sure. The choice he made at the time was “I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.” Now, because you’ve seen a picture of the boy, the two of you are contemplating reversing that decision; I’m just not sure what your goals are, or what the best possible result of getting in touch and asking for a paternity test seven years later might be. You’re right that there are a number of potentially messy outcomes—what’s the best-case scenario? What role does your husband think he is capable of playing in this young boy’s life? What would he do if the boy’s parents refuse the paternity test—would he get a court order? Is he ready to pay child support, if they decide to ask for it? How will you two feel if you find out the child isn’t his after all? That’s not to say you shouldn’t do it, merely that there’s a lot to talk about first, and you should be very careful about proceeding if your husband isn’t sure about what he’s willing to offer this boy.

As for your feelings of betrayal: Go ahead and feel them. This can, and should, affect your marriage; that doesn’t mean you have to leave him or be angry with him forever, but you can absolutely experience hurt and anger and disappointment, and you can spend some time talking about why his response to finding out he may have had a son was to say, “Better not ask any follow-up questions and hope for the best.”

Q. Not just the appearance of sympathy: I, and a lot of the people that I know, suffer from anxiety and depression, as well as other mental health difficulties. If I know that a friend is struggling, I want to make sure that they are taking care of themselves and getting help if they need it. I don’t want to be pushy, but I also know from experience that a generic “That sucks. I hope you feel better,” or “I’m here if you want to talk,” isn’t very helpful. How can I offer my genuine support without coming off like I’m one of those annoying people who load people down with suggestions? (Have you tried journaling? Why don’t you talk to someone? Are you seeing a counselor? What helps me is x, you should try that.)

A: “I’m sure you’ve gotten a lot of unsolicited advice, so I don’t want to add to the weight of well-intentioned but overwhelming suggestions you’re already having to field. I’m glad you told me you’re having a tough time, and I’m here for you, whether you want me to listen, or just to spend some time together. There are a few things that have helped me that I’d be happy to talk about if you’d like, but I won’t bring it up unless you’re interested.”

Q. Re: Adult table, kid table: I hope the mom of the two sons on the autism spectrum is open to the idea of some extra help for her son who is struggling at family events. Some ideas that might help include: make a social story about what to expect at each family party, offer a variety of sensory toys and the option to use them, offer the child breaks from noise and overwhelming sensory experiences, and let the child know he can engage as much or as little as he wants to.

Treating kids on the spectrum 100 percent like all other children is unfair. Kids on the spectrum may need extra support in certain situations and that is not a bad thing for anyone to suggest or provide. Everyone will need extra help with something in their lives, and treating everyone equally is not treating everyone the same.

A: This is such a helpful way of framing the situation. There are so many ways even well-intentioned neurotypical parents/friends/relatives can fail to support their loved ones on the spectrum. Insisting that her son spend the entire holiday with his neurotypical cousins without offering additional support isn’t fair to him, and in its own way suggests that “behaving neurotypically” is the best possible outcome. The letter writer’s sister may not consciously realize this, of course, and I don’t think the letter writer ought to accuse her of anything, but it may help her to relax and reconsider her plan for the holidays if she can be reminded that acknowledging her son’s unique needs is good and helpful, rather than additionally stigmatizing.

Q. No disorder: I recently lost a lot of weight, and it’s causing huge issues at my school, et cetera. I never intended to lose the weight and am trying to gain back a pound or two. But no matter how much I try to tell people they still think I have an issue, especially at family gatherings—a simple decline of a cookie prompts people to say “you are so skinny, eat more” or “you’re not the same as before.”

I’m tired of everyone thinking I have an issue because of my current weight. Do you have any advice—besides publicly stuffing myself (I tried)—to get this point across?

A: “I’m doing well and taking care of myself, and I don’t want to have a conversation about my weight. Please don’t bring it up again.”

Q. Re: Not just the appearance of sympathy: If you don’t want to be one of those annoying people who offer unwanted suggestions, don’t offer unwanted suggestions! Ask open-ended questions: What are you doing to take care of yourself? What works to help you deal with that? How can I help you? Do you have people you can count on to help? You might also look around and see if you can take one of the great trainings for laypersons in how to help people in distress.

A: Thanks for this. How can I help you? is a great way to let your friend take the lead on any conversation, so you don’t accidentally overstep any bounds. Even if the answer is Nothing, it just helps to talk about it, you’ll know you haven’t made your friend’s already-difficult situation worse by suggesting something they’ve heard 14 times in the last week.

Discuss this column with Dear Prudence on her Facebook page!