First: Thank you for your encouragement to continue to write these entries. I was pretty certain that I would either bore people or annoy them because I've never written about this subject before, and I was trying to gloss over or compress things a bit, so that I could then get back to what people are used to reading from me.
I was going to write one post; it got long, so I broke it into two. It's not two posts. This, by the way, will give you some idea of why I'm so very bad at estimating how long either a book or even a series will be: I feel as if I know what I'm trying to say going in; it's clear, to me.
But then I need to make it clear to people who don't have my brain, and I find that takes more words than I originally thought; that the underlying structure has to be explained in clear, concrete steps, and that I forget about those steps when I'm thinking about only the conclusion.
Second: I was talking to my mother in the car today, and told her that I was posting about my son's early school years, and the school itself. She's been telling me that I should write something about this for years--but has accepted that I don't want to write about my son's life until I'm certain he knows what that entails.
While we were talking, she asked me to recount an incident that occurred just before he started junior kindergarten, because she still remembers it clearly and the argument between us at that time was a revelation for her. It was a revelation for me, as well. I've actually already posted about it in janni's journal, but I'm cutting and pasting it now, and I'm adding a bit to it.
When my son was to go to school my mother was beside herself with terror
for him. He was different. He wouldn't fit in. There were a lot of quirky
things about him, and in her panic, she started to actually yell at
him--and us--about them.
The one and only time she shouted at him, I very calmly told her that if
she ever did this again, I would throw her out. She was in tears, though;
she was terrified of the misery that other children would make of
his life, and she shouted: "Do you think that was bad? What do you think
the other kids are going to say to him? Do you know how much worse it
will be???" (And, frankly, a bunch of stuff about how if we had raised
him differently, etc.)
I love my mother. She loves my children. They adore her. The shouting at
him to conform? That was entirely motivated out of that love and that
And it was totally wrong.
I said, after she would listen, "He is not a normal child. He will never
be a normal child. I think attempting to force him to be something for
reasons he can't even understand will only make him an insecure, unhappy
child--and I'm not going to do that. Will he have a happy school life?
Probably not. But he will find his tribe, mom. You're worried that
he'll be laughed at? We were all laughed at.
"But here's the deal. If we start laughing at him in order to
shame him into different behaviour, what will he learn? He'll
learn that it's okay to be treated that way, because the people he
trusts and loves are doing it too.
"If we don't, he'll learn that some other people are total
assholes, and frankly, that's a truth that can't be changed.
"What would you like him to learn here? What's the lesson you want him to
And you know? Her whole face fell, and then she stopped, and she was
still in tears. But she said, "I never thought of it that way before."
And she never, ever did that again.
This incident was a revelation for my mother because it made her realize that some of the things we do that come from a place of love and concern are nonetheless the wrong things; she'd never looked at her actions in the reductionist way I presented it to her before, and what I said made clear, logical and emotional sense to her.
The incident was a revelation for me because it made me realize that so many parental actions--experienced by children (and me) as inexplicable cruelty--came from that terror of love and concern. That the fear was so strong and her desire to do something so intense, that she desperately tried to make us conform so that we wouldn't be in pain.
Fear is not the thing you want in the driver's seat. Caution, yes. Knowledge, yes. And it's impossible not to be afraid, sometimes. But acting purely out of fear in this primal way--not good. The effects reverberate through decades.
Continuing on with the theme of fear, the third part of this post: A brief interlude before I continue with post-junior-kindergarten, but it's actually relevant.
One of the hardest things for parents of ASD children--especially mothers--is the horrible guilt and insecurity we all experience at one stage or another. I had days of wondering if it was something I ate while pregnant, something I didn't eat while pregnant, something I didn't do while parenting; I had moments of "maybe my mother was right and we should have done this differently."
That's normal, or at least that's normal among the mothers of other ASD children I did meet (in the previously mentioned speech therapy class, which wasn't necessarily about speech therapy at all).
But what I found in that class that was most interesting, to me, was the way the parents characterized their children. One mother, who I quite liked because she was generally blunt and had a sense of humour, was talking in group about the fact that her son was vastly more comfortable around similarly non-neurotypical children. I listened to her talk with the other mothers for a bit, and then I said, in my characteristic wishy-washy way:
"That's absolutely wrong."
She looked at me. "No, it's not--he is."
"It has nothing to do with whether or not he's initially more comfortable; he probably doesn't notice the differences. It's that you're vastly more comfortable around ASD children and mothers. You are his only weathervane, and he is picking up your discomfort when he's around non ASD parents and children; it makes him nervous and tense."
"Because you're afraid that the other children will judge him and be mean to him--and that the other mothers will judge you, you try to sit on him and his behaviour, which is almost never effective."
She thought about this, because it's not like I'd actually seen her with 'normal' parents--but I'd met and observed her son, and I'd seen the two of them interact a number of times. After a few minutes, she nodded. "I am. But they just don't understand my son. They don't understand him, and it's hard."
Yes. It is very, very hard.
But here's the thing. As parents, we struggle to understand our children, and they trust us as much as they trust anyone. When they start interacting with other children, we are their champion, and often the only one they have. We've often spent a life worrying about what other people think of us, and how they perceive us, and for ASD parents it's going to be a constant struggle; they judge us through our children, and they know nothing about our children.
Is it hard to have people judge us? Yes, of course it is. But that social fear--of looking like a bad parent, of having someone think we have a bad child--sometimes leads us to behave in ways that actually severely undermine our children in their early social interactions.
Small children are not hugely judgemental on their own. They haven't completely formed strong ideas of what normal is; they rely on surrounding adults for cues. Always. Even normal children who are strangers to the adult in question.
If we correct our child with affection, if we tease him out of an incoming meltdown (if that works; for our son it did about 80% of the time), or better, if we play and interact with him, the watching children pick up cues about how our child is to be treated. They pick them up from us.
If, in our nervousness and our protectiveness, we become sharper or harsher in an attempt to get him to settle down around the 'normal' kids, those kids will also pick up what we're doing--they'll associate it with him, and it becomes part of their (brief) paradigm of interaction with him.
It also has the side-effect of making our child more nervous, not less, and is likely to pitch him off-balance much faster.
My husband and I knew that our son had difficulty interacting -- but he was alarmingly social; he wanted to play with other kids. He just didn't have a clear idea of how.
So we--well, if I'm being honest, mostly my husband--would play with him in the school yard before and after school (I was after school). The type of things you can do with ASD children of my son's JK age are often limited.
So there was a lot of chasing and catching and tossing in the air; Thomas was Monster Dad, and ate small children. But the other small children in the yard? They watched my son playing with his father and they wanted to play with his father too. Small children in that age group want to play with playful adults a lot of the time.
Thomas would include them all. He'd catch a different child, toss them in the air (the only bad thing about this was that all the mothers who knew him didn't mind, but occasionally small girls would approach and he was always very wary of just grabbing them if he didn't know their parents, which crushed the new small girls =/).
So my son would be running and screaming--and occasionally plotting the downfall of Monster Dad with the other kids (often girls), and he had a fabulous time. So did the other kids.
They grew to associate the combination of my son and his father with a very specific, overactive type of play--but they always enjoyed it. It was a positive reinforcement because those girls took their cues from my husband's interaction, and there was an uptick in the way those girls then responded to my son. Clearly, his father enjoyed his company, which implied that his company could be enjoyed.
(My son's godfather did exactly the same thing on the days he met my son after school, but he had groupies, I swear).
I'm not saying that everyone has the ability to do this, because we're busy and stressed and we have a million things to do and other children to fetch--but if you can make the time, this is one way of laying a social foundation and subtly reinforcing it without any obvious sign of correction or annoyance at all.
And this was one of the things that became common as junior-kindergarten continued.