What does childlike mean? Well, if you google the term, the definition from Merriam-Webster is “resembling, suggesting, or appropriate to a child or childhood especially marked by innocence, trust, and ingenuousness.” Ingenuousness is defined as “free from reserve, restraint, or dissimulation; candid; sincere.”
Sounds pretty awesome to me, honestly.
As an autistic woman, I’ve definitely been described as being childlike many times in my life. Although as a child and young adult I dissimulated by masking due to trying to fit in, my diagnosis put an end to that behavior because the new information helped me realize what actions were being taken on automatically to protect myself from abuse by others.
Why is childlike “behavior” from an autistic adult such a problem for neurotypicals, however?
Is there something wrong with my trusting and open nature? My sincerity and candidness? My joy over “childish” items? Being direct, truthful, and earnest/genuine in our words is often met with suspicion because… our expressions don’t match up with “typical” expectations? Because even though our tone is kind, we aren’t smiling? We aren’t looking them in the eye, therefore we’re lying?
Absolutely I am childlike. I love teddy bears. I recently began collecting them after years of not because they bring me joy. I open a box and see a teddy bear and I instantly hug it, rub the softness against my face, name it, and yes, carry that teddy bear around with me for days or weeks, even out in public. Some people smile at seeing a grown woman carrying a teddy bear around; others are more judgmental, like my doing this affects them in any way at all. (FYI, it doesn’t.) I like to walk on tiptoes, twirl randomly, run and skip steps while going up, jump off the steps when I’ve got 2-3 left (sometimes), hop over puddles and cracks in the sidewalk, and other “childlike” things. I also enjoy purring and mrowing, pretending I’m a cat sometimes.
None of these things makes me a child or incapable of making decisions for myself or my own child.
This doesn’t make me less of an adult with her own thoughts, preferences, and individualized needs. (Note: I don’t use the word special because I feel it has a negative connotation for me. I’m an individual and therefore, my needs are unique to myself and my life.)
Worse is the way I’ve seen people try to infantilize autistic people, assuming we don’t want to do something or go somewhere… without even asking us first. Not caring at all that excluding us will hurt our feelings or make us feel like we’re truly not wanted around because the people we have in our lives assume things about what we want or need. Why do this? Asking someone if they want to come along some place even if the belief is that they’ll say no isn’t that hard. It will probably take a few minutes and can easily be done over whatever preference a person has for communication (text, call, email, etc.).
No, we aren’t children, and we need for everyone in our lives to treat us like adults capable of making decisions — even if you completely disagree with our choices. Our innocent joy, sincerity and candidness should be appreciated, not ridiculed; our trust shouldn’t be abused or taken for granted. Our opinions on our own lives, including autism discussions, should matter more than anything else or any belief a person has about our capabilities or desires.
If you have a question about an autistic person’s life… ask them! Invite them, even if you think they’ll say no thanks. It’s the action of asking that matters. Try not to assume you know better than anyone else about what someone wants, because while you might be right… you might also be incredibly off the mark and hurt someone you care about deeply.
What are your childlike qualities? Do you collect anything? I’d love to hear about all the things that bring you joy!