Infantilization and its Complexities

Infantilize (verb): treat (someone) as a child or in a way which denies their maturity in age or experience.

I’m in my 20’s now, and legally an adult. Yet there are still times in which I feel as though I am infantilized by those around me. I was convinced that people treated me like a baby because of my disability, which meant (to them) I definitively couldn’t do certain things.

Occasionally the worst cases of being infantilized came not from strangers, but from my own family. For a long time, even though I got older with each passing day, I felt stuck in the era of my childhood. I feel this is partly due to my overprotective, yet loving, mother. It’s tough to pinpoint specific instances of feeling infantilized by her, maybe because it happened so often; or because such happenings are so delicate and subtle; or maybe because it is ingrained in me more than I realize from years of separate and intertwined occurrences over the years. I think I’ve come to accept being infantilized as a reality, perhaps just as I accept the reality of having cerebral palsy.

One anecdote that I can remember distinctly is a time when my family went to the beach, and the other kids we were with wanted to go “banana boating” in the ocean. I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to join everyone else before I even asked permission. Now, in retrospect, my mother not permitting me to go banana boating with the other kids was definitely a wise and sensible decision…and I realized this decision was not because my mom viewed me as a baby, but because my disability made me more vulnerable in several ways: I still couldn’t swim, even after years of attempted swimming lessons; the weak muscles in my core could’ve heightened the likelihood of being knocked off the banana boat; the high tone in the muscles of the inside of my thigh could’ve made sitting on the boat painful…in the end, it was dangerous. Period.

At the time, though, I didn’t see it that way. As the kids ran off happily into the ocean without me, I felt sad and blatantly excluded. I was also starting my teenage years, and as such had a lot left to learn. I still do even now.

Being treated this way doesn’t happen as often these days, and perhaps when it does, it’s really out of over-protection. Maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with my disability…especially when it comes to my family. I’ll always be the youngest. I’m also in this strange time of my life where I’m learning how to be an adult in the real world, so it may be easy for my family to put me back in the position of the child because that’s what they’re used to…and even easier for me to allow it, but that could be because I’m subconsciously blaming it on the CP, though that might not necessarily be the reason.

Minimizing infantilization in such a way that someone with a disability can be safely included in certain activities can help, like some suggestions below. Note that what works for one person or one particular situation may not work for another, and there may be some scenarios that cannot be safely adapted.

  • Asking the person with a disability, “What can I do to help?”, or saying something like, “Tell me what I need to do,” gives them more control and more autonomy with the way in which they receive assistance, and also allows you to be more clear on what needs to happen to keep the person safe. 
  • Presume competence, and don’t assume!