Airbrushing Out the Evidence of Her Son’s Differences

For Dame, Alysia Abbott writes a personal essay about the importance of presenting her autistic son on social media — fostering inclusiveness, normalizing his differences, connecting with other parents with similar children — but also confesses her tendency to only show him in the most flattering light.

I could select which photos I would share online. I would highlight those with his eyes open, his gaze steady, maybe the rare shot where he does look at me with a smile. At the right angle, and in the right light, Finn truly is beautiful. Friends and “friends” alike have commented on how much he resembles a young Paul McCartney. He has the full cheeks the cupid bow mouth the large brown eyes and soft mop of hair. Without fail, I will share those photos where that beauty is on display.

Here’s what you won’t see: images where he looks developmentally delayed, what we used to call “mentally retarded,” or just “retarded.”

I actually remember a turning point on trip to a local apple orchard when my son was maybe 3 years old. We say we go apple-picking in order to make fresh crumbles and apple sauce but we all know it’s really about the family photo op. Sipping cider on hayrides, small children sitting in a great big pumpkin patch–what could be more quintessentially wholesome and fall-like? On this particular visit, there was a beautiful late afternoon light and I was posing Finn inside a large apple crate, where he seemed happy to sit and play in the leaves. Later that night, scrolling through photos deciding which to share, I found one that captured an expression I’d never noticed on my son before, a slightly twisted open mouth grin that looked different, that looked more autistic. At the time I had a hard time seeing Finn’s diagnosis with any clarity. This photo helped me do this, but it wasn’t a photo I wanted to share.

With social media, I was able to create an idealized version of my son, writing posts that can accurately describe our days together, but accompanying these posts with photos that make him look like any other kid his age. In this online life, I could erase those aspects of his presentation, that peculiar autistic mien, that might make others uncomfortable.

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