When I first thought about blogging, I thought about it as I spoke with my friend Cynthia, mother to Patricia. Her daughter is autistic and labeled as special needs. Our daughter, Ainsley, is typical. There is so much noise among adults and social pressure to assign yourself to a parenting camp – whether you are raising a special or typical child. As our daughters became friends, and as we did as parents, she and I chatted about how vulnerable parenting the way that works for you and your child can feel sometimes. While we both have learned from family members, friends, books, and experts, we feel that when we trust our guts about what our kids need, our guts are usually right on. That doesn’t mean that trusting our guts is always automatic or easy. In fact we talk about how hard it can be to trust our inner voices and our senses about what our unique children need in a given moment. And even when we do trust our guts, we can still (and likely do) fall short, lose our tempers, and let down our children.
- How do we best guide our kids?
- How do we get out of the way and let them experience pain and failure for their personal growth?
- How do we prevent others (and ourselves) from crushing their spirits?
- When and how should we advocate and protect them in various settings?
- How do we embrace just being with our kids?
Our daughter Ainsley is seven years old, does well academically, and makes friends very easily. That said, she has her own personality and with any personality, there are strengths and challenges. Her emotional intelligence is pretty amazing, and that’s not just coming from her biased mom; we hear it a lot from other adults and even other kids. With that emotional intelligence comes a lot of sensitivity, to which we are learning to respond.
Cynthia is a single mom and has one heck of a life story. Raised with strong Irish Catholic values and one of six siblings, she has worked as a math teacher, billing in advertising with a pharmaceutical company, helped manage a consignment store, nannied, held different accounting jobs, and she has experienced a lot of loss too.
Her daughter Patricia is eight and a half years old and is diagnosed with autism. Patricia is happy, sweet, and full of energy and interest in lots of different things. She does well academically and is comfortable approaching people and asking questions. She currently spends part of her time in a special needs classroom with five children and one-to-one instruction, and then the other part of her time with fifteen typical kids and a smaller group of special kids. As Cynthia sees things, Patricia has her feet in both worlds, special and typical.
Ainsley and Patricia play well together. They are excited that they live in the same neighborhood. Both only-child-children, they appreciate knowing someone else in the same boat. They are comfortable with one another. They greet each other with excitement, hugging at first sight and again on departure.
They have a lot in common, and they are also very different. While there are sometimes differences and frustrations that may be attributed to autism (or autistic behaviors), these are no bigger or more difficult than other sorts of differences and frustrations two typical children experience when at play (e.g., sharing, jealousy, misunderstandings, etc.).
There are many times when I see things in Ainsley and Patricia that fuel my optimism about our future: Like their innate kindness towards and with one another. And their ability to adapt to one another and find a shared playing rhythm even when each child has her own unique rhythm.
There other times when I feel deep sadness as Patricia is distracted and misses out on a moment with Ainsley or with the larger world. And there are times when my daughter believes she should parent or direct Patricia, and I see the balance of power, where typical dominates over special, and it worries me not only about Patricia’s future but Ainsley’s too, where those who can more easily dominate and take advantage of those who are more vulnerable do so.
Overall, Cynthia and I remark on how alike our basic fears and hopes are for our girls. And our girls regularly demonstrate to us how unimportant a label like autism is to them.
I write this Blog for me, my close friends, and any others who talk, think, and feel through this parenting stew every day. n writing this, I get closer to accepting who I am as a person and a parent, without having to label any of it. It is my sincerest wish that as you read this Blog you connect with the content and are empowered to be a person and parent in any and all ways that you feel are authentic.
We are not static. Our children are not static. Our world is dynamic. Our needs are dynamic.
We have a lot to learn from each other. And we also have a lot to tune out and ignore.
We are in this together, and also we must find ourselves, as people and parents, on our own.
The title for the Blog, Typical Special Needs, comes from my friend Cynthia. She was talking about how isolating the special needs world can be. And we were talking about how there is no typical special needs child. And there is no un-special typical child.
Every child is different. Every parent is different. We all have typical and special needs.
Labels and tested, researched approaches and techniques are certainly helpful in terms of accessing and sharing information and connecting people to resources. Cynthia has told me about a number of amazing special education teachers and behaviorists who have assisted her and Patricia because of their diagnosis. When Ainsley’s teachers suggested that Ainsley might benefit from checking in with the school counselor sometimes to process her feelings, I was grateful to those teachers, and my husband and I agreed that whenever Ainsley was feeling worried or anxious, it was a sound plan and a fantastic resource to call on our school counselor. Other people caring about our children and connecting them (and us) to resources is good. I’m all for that.
My concern is that as we label children and parents and parenting strategies, we often segregate and isolate. We may even take on mindsets and ways of operating that doom us to see our children, each other, and ourselves in only labeled sorts of ways. As we label, segregate, and isolate, we miss out. We miss out on connecting, learning, and evolving, and even healing misunderstandings and misperceptions about other people, parents and children.
In future posts, I look forward to highlighting people who have taught me a great deal about myself and parenting, and they have done so by modeling, caring, and sharing and not by judging or labeling.