A reader asked:
Hey! I was wondering what you think about adults thinking of neuroatypical kids as “manipulative,” “charming,” etc. surely not everyone who says that is wrong, but it can’t be a coincidence that it’s usually said about neuroatypical kids?
I think that people jump to that conclusion really quickly with disabled kids. “Manipulative” can kind of become a catch-all category for ways to delegitimize a kid’s interests, opinions, and self-advocacy.
Manipulative often translates as meaning things like:
- “She resists doing what I tell her to do, and tries to distract me so I’ll let her do something else”
- (without reference to what it is they’re telling her to do, why she doesn’t want to do it, and what she does want to do)
- (Sometimes this means that she is 12 years old, and she’s resisting doing a preschool curriculum worksheet for the zillionth time)
- “He keeps trying to say things I don’t want to hear, and to convince me that what he’s saying is important even though I keep telling him it isn’t.”
- (Without reference to what he’s saying, why it matters to him, or why it’s so unreasonable for them to listen to him about it)
- (Sometimes this means that he’s in pain, and trying hard to tell them and get it to stop, but they don’t believe him or don’t care if he’s hurting.)
- “Other people sometimes believe her about things when I tell them she’s lying”, or
- “Other people ask for her side of the story even after I’ve told them mine.”
- (And expecting you to believe the adult automatically that it’s unreasonable to ever believe anything the kid says)
- (Sometimes this means that they’re hitting her when no one who cares is looking, and they’re afraid that she might eventually convince someone with power that they’re doing something wrong.)
Charming can also mean “other people like this person more than I do, and more than I think they deserve”.
That said, being manipulative in a bad way is a real thing, and people with disabilities are just as capable of being manipulative as anyone else is.
Being manipulative in the bad sense involves doing things like:
- Having highly developed skill at getting other people to like them and want their approval
- Using that skill to ride roughshod over people’s boundaries
- And/or get them to do things that they don’t want to do or shouldn’t do
- Convincing people they want to manipulate that they are friends, and not actually reciprocating friendship in a meaningful way
Sometimes people with disabilities are manipulative. More often, they are manipulated. (For instance, adults often have nondisabled kids volunteer to pretend to be the friends of disabled kids. This usually results in the disabled kids being manipulated in really degrading ways and misled about what friendship is.)
Short version: Being manipulative is a real thing, but disabled kids are accused of it far more often than they are guilty of it. When a disabled kid is called manipulative, it often means that someone is objecting to their entirely justified attempts to get control over their life. (Which would be seen as normal and acceptable in a nondisabled person their age.)