How Autism Taught Me That The ‘Golden Rule’ Is All Wrong

Photo by John Peters on Unsplash

I think it goes without saying that we learn a lot as we go when parenting. Parenting a child on the spectrum adds a whole new dimension to the experience. I make it no secret how hard it can be and it is easy to get caught up in the challenges. But like anything that challenges us, we grow from it and I have definitely found this to be true.

Whether you are a parent of a so-called “typical” child or one with special needs, I believe it is safe to say that there are some fundamental laws of parenting by which we all abide and preach, like the “Golden Rule.” I do not think it it is surprising that nearly every parent has uttered that little gem at one time or another. But I did find it surprising when I learned that we are getting it entirely wrong.

Do unto others what you want them to do unto you.

This poetic verse sounds right, right? I thought so, too. So imagine my surprise when one of my son’s program specialists, while attempting to explain to my son why something he was doing was upsetting to me, dropped this little bomb and explained to us that we should not be treating others the way we want to be treated. Instead, she explained, we should be treating other people the way they want to be treated. And just like that, everything about any relationship I have with any person on this planet was flipped on its head, but in a good way because she is right.

To illustrate this lesson, she told of how her husband loves power tools. He relishes walking through the aisles of Home Depot and staring dreamily at power saws and drills like a kid in a candy store. She went on to say that it would then follow that come her birthday when her husband would select a gift for her that he should purchase a shiny, new power tool, right? Because that is what he would want as a gift. We laughed at this. Of course, my son laughed because he thought it was funny. I, having been married and divorced, laughed knowing that this husband would be in huge trouble if this ever happened.

Conversely, she explained how much she loves scented candles and bath products. Obviously, if she were to waltz into Bath & Body Works and select a gift of this nature for her husband, he would be equally as thrilled as she would be with a power tool.

“We teach the Golden Rule,” she stated. “We just teach it all wrong. No one would be happy being treated how someone else wants to be treated. We want to be treated the way we want to be treated.”

After the meeting, I found myself reflecting on this for quite some time. It makes perfect sense to me now. I think of my son’s autism and how many times as a parent I did things that I would want thinking this would make him happy because it made me happy.

In hindsight, I could now see that me talking to him at dinner and asking a million questions about his day because I enjoy conversing this way is actually complete agony and not at all the way he wants to be treated. He wants quiet. He detests questions. He will talk when he feels like it. Pressing him for details only results in upsetting him and causing him additional stress on an already taxed nervous system.

I think back to the epic meltdowns that I encountered with him when he was younger when I surprised him by announcing suddenly we were going to get ice cream. He hated surprises. He likes to know what the schedule is ahead of time so he can mentally prepare for it. I was foolishly thinking it would be a treat because that it is how I thought of it. Lesson learned. So. Many. Lessons.

The beauty in developing healthy relationships with one another is that we treat others well, yes. But to truly balance a relationship with another person, we have to recognize their uniqueness and give them what they need in the relationship. In return, in theory, we get back what we need. It follows that if a relationship is dictated only by what one person wants (or treating the relationship only how one partner wants it to be), we can find ourselves in trouble. It turns out, the Golden Rule most definitely applies — it just needs to be applied properly.

Jennifer Sartore Hulst

Written by

Honest writing about the "spectrum" of life, love, and parenting two teens (one with autism). Aspiring author. Follow me on Facebook:

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