the power of no revisited


text of graphic:

Saying No can be a radical act but honoring it when we hear it never should be.


To comply:  to conform, submit, or adapt (as to a regulation or to another’s wishes) as required or requested

I’ve been struggling with this post. It’s been swimming around in my head for days, growing increasingly insistent for structure, shape, voice. But I haven’t known – I don’t know – where to begin, I haven’t know how to parse memories and wrangle fear and somehow, somehow, somehow make sense of it all.

I still don’t know if I can – make sense of it, that is. But I also know that the words will grown more and more insistent if I don’t let them go. Words like Compliance, Defiance, Respect and Rape. Words that grow increasingly insistent, urgent. Words that won’t … comply.

The driving rain smacks the sidewalk outside the coffee shop as Lydia Brown and I talk about something that has nothing to do with anything, yet everything to do with everything. I’ve brought up a topic, seeing it, as I do, as fairly black and white. Lydia has tossed it into the air, caught it in a whirlwind of words, and handed it back to me, seeing it as she does, in Technicolor. See what you were missing, she says. It is a command, not a question.

She needs to know, she says. We are talking about Katie. All kids need to be empowered to draw their own boundaries, she says, to understand their own comfort levels, to know that it’s okay if those boundaries and comfort levels change from one situation to the next, from one time period to the next. They need to know that they can say I know this was okay last week, but it’s not okay today. They need to practice setting those boundaries early, often, always. They need to know.

I know these things, but I hadn’t seen it here. Hadn’t recognized the connection. Hadn’t understood the moment as an opportunity – a responsibility – to talk about boundaries, about will, about respect and the right to demand it. I hadn’t seen it here. Now I see it’s everywhere. 

I’m surprised I missed it. I perseverate on safety, on self-determination. I wring my hands trying to figure out how to ensure that my girls will never write the words that I wrote.

It’s odd what I remember all these years later. It’s not the physical pain. It’s not the begging for him to stop. It’s not the tears nor the shock that followed.
It’s the ground. The dark, damp asphalt. And the bricks in the wall. And the smell of the dumpster just feet away.
But more than anything else what has haunted me this week has been an image of something that I couldn’t actually see at the time. A picture that I’ve created in my mind over time. From a different perspective. One outside myself. Watching it happen.
It’s his hand. Splayed across my back. Holding me in place. Taking away my choice. My control. My dignity.
I told no one.
For so many reasons, I told no one.
Twenty-three years later, I am still embarrassed. I still feel like it’s my fault. I still see his hand, the ground, the bricks, the loss.

From the moment that my children entered the world, I knew how vulnerable they would be, simply because they were human. And then autism did that thing that it does – it magnified what was already there. Because who is more vulnerable than one who cannot make herself (or himself) heard? Who more perfect a victim than one who cannot report the crime, or wouldn’t be believed if s/he did?

Langauge is unreliable. Words don’t always mean what we think they do. I’m sorry, but the testimony of one who is known to be an unreliable speaker would never hold up in court.

But it’s so much more than that.

When we prize compliance over communication, we train our children to be victims. 

How do we tell our children that it’s okay to say No while keeping tallies of “incidents of non-compliance”? How do we show them that they should be able to exercise their free will when we lavish praise on them for bowing to ours? How do we teach them to create and enforce their own boundaries when we don’t recognize them when they do?

When we allow therapists to engage in hand-over-hand instruction without first seeking consent, we are teaching our children that their bodies are not their own. When we restrain them because they are not following instructions, we prove it. When we dole out gummy bears and “good jobs!” for doing what they’re told, we reinforce it.

Human beings are vulnerable to being abused by one another. Those who struggle to be understood are far more vulnerable still. So what do we do?

We teach them self-defense. Self-defense starts with self-respect. Self-respect starts with being heard. Why would No mean No at nineteen in a parking lot at midnight if it didn’t mean No in your kitchen at eight? Why would No mean No to a therapist in an adult care facility if it was ignored by your own parents at six?

Our kids say no in different ways. I’ve written about this part before, citing posts by autistic writers that I hope that you’ll click on, read, process. I’ve written about how, as a parent of an autistic child, listening for me means watching and watching means understanding and understanding means respecting. I’ve written about how No is not always a word, but can be a gesture, a scream, a physical exercise. I’ve written about how it is no less potent, meaningful, urgent in any of those forms than it would be if it were a word. 

And I’ve written that saying No can be a radical act but that honoring it when we hear it never should be.

I realize as I type that I’m pounding the keys on my keyboard – that I’m typing with .. with what? … not with anger but with urgency, not with indignation but with frustration and fear. This shouldn’t be my kids’ responsibility. This should be on them – on the bullies and the would-be abusers and the ones who would hurt and berate and scar and damn it this should be on them, on their parents, their teachers, someone else, someone who is not us.

You see what I did there, right? And you knew all along that it was all crap, right? Because there is no Us and there is no Them —  no tidy bifurcation of humans as would-be abusers and would-be victims. There’s just We, just Us — all of us.

Showing our children that No means No is on all of us. And it starts with honoring their right to be heard when they say it.

23 thoughts on “the power of no revisited

  1. Sobbing as I read this, thinking about my sweet boy who cannot make his NO understood well enough yet to anyone but his dad and me. I worry that the day will come when he is big enough to hurt someone in his attempts to say NO and that he will be the one to suffer for it. The urgency gnaws at me every damned day.

  2. You have taught me to nurture my childrens’ self-advocacy, and I wanted to share my Facebook post with you from the weekend, but don’t know how. There’s an awesome photo… My 4.5 yr old girl went to her first movie and also had her first salon hair cut (both sensory TRIUMPHS for her), but the biggest win was when she was playing in my office and when I went in she said “Mummy could go BYE. I would play by myself.” She told me to get lost! I’d never been happier to get the boot. 🙂

    That said, all children are constantly asked to comply and listen and learn and advocate and figure out who to comply to and who to respect. When I urge my boy’s arms into his coat because we are late for school and he is NO and saying he wants to play, or I insist he wear gloves and he doesn’t want to, am I teaching him his words don’t matter? I don’t think so. They don’t matter at that instant, but I promise play after the thing we have to do and I explain the reason for gloves.

    I remind them constantly who they should respect (parents, grandparents, teachers) and when to seek our help, and whose body their body is (theirs and only theirs) and when they have choices. I hope this is enough… but your post makes me feel like I’m missing something…

    • love the story! and please don’t misunderstand me – i don’t mean that there are no rules, no structure, no times at which we must be parents. but explaining why something like wearing a coat is necessary (though i think it’s necessary far less often than we parents seem to be programmed to believe :)) and insisting that he wear it because it’s 12 degrees outside is very different than ignoring // redirecting without hearing // acknowledging // respecting // seeking to understand.

    • “All children are constantly asked to comply and listen and learn and advocate and figure out who to comply to and who to respect.”



      We’re talking about children here who, when told to go to their room and not come back down until they can behave, stay in their room for 8 hours because they don’t know how they are supposed to comply with the demand to behave, and so they comply with the demand to stay in their room. We’re talking about children here who take things literally and who have a rigid adherence to rules.

      Neurotypical children figure out when to rebel. They figure out the social context of when it’s sort of permissible to rebel. They figure out who has their best interests at heart and who doesn’t. They figure out who is lying.

      Autistic children don’t.

      That’s where the danger lies.

      • I think saying autistic children “don’t” understand this (who is lying, who to trust) is far too broad sweeping. My autistic children are 4 and 5, and they are rebelling, testing boundaries, and knowingly being silly monkies and figuring it out. We know we need to teach our two many things that would come more innately to other children. Without discounting an autistic persons ability to learn at any age, we could say:

        “Neurotypical children figure out when to rebel [more easily, through trial and error and almost through osmosis]. They figure out the social context of when it’s sort of permissible to rebel. They figure out who has their best interests at heart and who doesn’t. They figure out who is lying.

        Autistic children don’t [or do so as easily and need specific support to learn these things].

        That’s where the danger lies. [We need to teach our autistic children, potentially more than one might think you would] to respect themselves, advocate, and stay safe].

        Stay warm by Jess’s fire. 🙂

      • I’m exaggerating because too many people have always assumed that I’d “just figure it out eventually”. Well, I’m 37, and I still haven’t. And I know too many autistic adults who still struggle with this as well. I’m exaggerating because just letting us figure it out for ourselves is so incredibly dangerous, and has such far reaching consequences. I’m exaggerating because in this scenario, it’s better to give TOO MUCH support and explanation than too little.

        So yeah, I’m painting with a broad brush. I have a reason.

      • “I’m exaggerating because just letting us figure it out for ourselves is so incredibly dangerous, and has such far reaching consequences. I’m exaggerating because in this scenario, it’s better to give TOO MUCH support and explanation than too little.”

        I couldn’t possibly agree more, and in this particular scenario, where safety is paramount, I too would far, far rather err on the side of caution every single time.

        I do think that it’s important though to avoid painting with that broad brush as a general rule. I’d hate to set the precedent that it’s okay to assume that EVERY autistic person lacks understanding of, well, anything, as we try so hard day in and day out to show the world that there is no standard issue autism nor a singular manifestation of its gifts and challenges.

        Here, I couldn’t agree more that there’s no harm in the assumption that more support is necessary and unimaginable potential damage if we don’t, but I worry about the slippery slope of “every” and “always.”

        And the fire metaphor? Yeah, I cried. xo

  3. Yes. This is the fear I live with now. It’s why we’re taking out words like “compliance training” out of goals and IEPs. It’s why we’re teaching that when your brother says “no I don’t want a squish”, those words have to be heard and understood. And it’s why I lay awake at night wondering how to keep my kids’ world safe.

  4. This is my biggest fear. Six months ago, we let our B (12) go to the bathroom by himself in a restaurant. We told him the rules and I could see the bathroom from my seat. He went in and a minute or so later an older teenager went in. Anxiety took over. The teenager came out. Anxiety lessened. Then he went back in. With three other boys. (Boys don’t go to the bathroom by themselves, as a general rule.) Absolute fear set in and I immediately sent my husband to get him. Thankfully, nothing happened to him, but the fear of it happening was absolutely overwhelming. Since then, we have worked on NO and what it means, when to use it and to tell mom and dad when things happen he is not comfortable with things. It’s a process and I don’t know if he will ever understand. But it’s important to talk, to keep instilling the rules. Thank you for addressing this, for voicing the fear so many of us live with.

  5. My favorite word to teach a student has always been “no”….Such a hard thing to teach, honestly, but such an awesome moment.

    Working with older kids, there’s a balance there, where we have to teach them when to follow the rules and when it’s socially just…awkward to adhere literally to rules handed down by adults. I love the puzzle of figuring out how to explain it without invalidating adult authority on the important things, while getting the point across. It’s part of why I’ve so enjoyed working with older kids. It can be endlessly rewarding to encourage self-advocacy, even if it’s frustrating sometimes. I’m definitely the teacher who’s trying not to grin when an autistic student figures out for the first time that he can lie to me and I might not be able to call him on it, or a student figures out how to calmly inform me that she will absolutely NOT be doing what I’ve asked her to.

  6. As a one-on-one aide, I still remember the first time my student said “no” to me. I rejoiced! She kept saying “no” until I hit upon the right question, and I was so grateful to her for her patience and honored by the fact that she trusted me to figure it out.

    I really appreciate how you write about hand-over-hand instruction. I’ve begun some difficult conversations with the rest of my team members about this topic recently, trying to impress upon them the need for explanation and permission. My student is not autistic, but you’ve given me some ideas about where to look for more resources about this issue. Thank you!

  7. I love this post so much. I don’t think there is a more important topic than this.

    A post very much worth reading on this topic written by K. of Radical Neurodivergence Speaking can be found here:

    It is, perhaps, THE original writing on compliance and self-advocacy as related to Autistic people and seems to be the foundation for so much of the writing we see on compliance today–since it is THAT awesome 🙂 So many of us owe, myself included acknowledge Kassiane as the person who pioneered writing on the importance of “no”. So thought I would share for those who have not read it.

    Thanks for writing your beautiful piece as there really can’t be enough signal boosting on this topic. ❤

  8. I completely agree with your post. How is it that I waited years for him to speak, and now when he does, I must ignore? But there has to be a line between discipline and confidence-boosting, right? When you have to ignore “no” to brushing teeth and praise doing homework… But yes, my conscience fights with this. I just have to resign to the fact that we all have to do things we don’t want to. Say No, but your no won’t always be accepted…

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