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Events prior to Junior Kindergarten

There are three parts to this post.

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
, 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
 take away?"

 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."

She blinked.

"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.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 16th, 2010 02:32 am (UTC)
I just want to say that I'm finding this fascinating. I'm glad you decided to write it and I hope you continue!
Oct. 16th, 2010 03:20 am (UTC)
This is amazing. I know it doesn't seem like it to you...you lived it after all, but your insights and the way you understand and treat your son are filled with a respect and honesty and undertsanding that is sorely lacking in modern society.

Thank you.

I am really scared that any child I have with my husband will be ASD and learning as much as I can about different ways to relate to the situation makes me realize I have more tools at my disposal than I thought I did. So, thank you.
Oct. 16th, 2010 05:21 am (UTC)
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."

This is also normal for parents of kids with food allergies.

When we found out that my son had a peanut allergy by the anaphalaxis that he went through after he ingested some Easter candy, my wife and I both felt guilty. Was it the Thai food she'd occasionally eaten while pregnant? Was it something else? What did she do wrong?

It takes a while to just accept things as they are and move on.

Oct. 16th, 2010 06:10 am (UTC)
I'm finding this fascinating, too. I don't have children and have never known anyone with ASD, so what I find interesting is the incredibly clear-headed way you and your husband dealt with this. I've always had a great deal of admiration for you as a writer, and then, once I found you on line, admiration and enjoyment of your sense of humor and the aspects of your personality that you put out there, but now my admiration is on entirely different level.
Oct. 17th, 2010 03:26 am (UTC)
I just want to say that I don't see myself as terribly admirable, so I almost feel like a bit of an imposter now @.@; there were a lot of parenting things I probably could have done much better, and on a daily basis, I had lousy moments and good ones; I'm mostly writing about insights gleaned over the course of both the lousy and the good.
Oct. 17th, 2010 04:13 am (UTC)
Admirable people never see themselves that way :) I'm curious to know (perhaps this is coming in a future installment) if the insights you gained in raising your eldest later informed choices you made with your second child?
Oct. 16th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC)
If you aren't going to write a book at least see if Elizabeth Moon (e_moon60 on LJ) would put this up on her Speed of Dark blog.

And, while its definitely presumptive of me to suggest it, it occurs to me that the two of you could write an absolutely great book on the nurturing and welfare of ASD kids
Oct. 16th, 2010 10:15 pm (UTC)
I'm really glad that you are writing about all this, and I'm fascinated.

I'm also taking away things I had never realized, never thought about. Thank you for that - thank you for my son, who seems neurotypical and will still benefit from my realizing these things.

It's not about that, I realize - but thank you for it, anyway, and thank you also for sharing the views and insights into your family's life.
Oct. 17th, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC)
This is absolutely brilliant, and applicable to many, many other things than ASD kids & parents. So many of my own mistakes with our son were fear-motivated--and so many of the good choices came out of thinking past the fear.

May I link to this post on my autism-related blog?

Oct. 17th, 2010 08:30 pm (UTC)
May I link to this post on my autism-related blog?

Thank you, and yes, please do!
Oct. 27th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)
"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."

Thank you so much for these honest and perceptive posts! I don't even remember who linked to them now, but I read them all last night.

I went through so many of the same thought processes that you did, even though my daughter's neurological challenges are quite different. She's a quirky introverted kid who probably has mild undiagnosed ADHD, but her real problem was sensory integration dysfunction. (I say "was" because now at age eight, she has enough understanding of her difficulties and enough coping methods that she's managed to catch up to her age group in most of the important ways.) Of the seven senses (the five external senses, plus proprioception and the vestibular sense), the only two that weren't completely out of whack for her were taste and smell.

The world wasn't a safe place to her, because her *body* wasn't a safe place. Everyday physical sensations were a source of shrieking horror. Even with physical therapy twice a week, she didn't walk until she was almost two years old, because the feelings involved were just that wrong and terrifying for her.

And that argument you had with your mom, I had with my mother-in-law, more than once. We were "coddling" her. We were holding her back by refusing to simply insist that she act like "a normal kid". God, I feel my blood pressure rising just remembering those fights.

But I felt so damn righteous and vindicated when my daughter went to her first big birthday party when she was four years old. By the end of the party nearly every kid there was so wound-up and overstimulated that they were screaming or crying, but you know who wasn't? My hypersensitive kid. Much earlier in the party, she felt herself starting to get overwhelmed, and without any prompting from me whatsoever, she picked up a few toys and went to play in a quiet, dark bedroom. We stayed there for ten minutes and missed a few party games. Once she'd relaxed and recovered, she went back to the party, and sailed through the rest with no problem.

I'm convinced that this is because my husband and I never tried to substitute our reality for hers. What she felt was what she felt, whether it made sense to us or not, and our job was to help her learn to understand and work with her feelings. And it worked!
Dec. 22nd, 2010 11:31 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting this. I have a child on the spectrum who is in school now as is his typical developing younger brother. My aunt who is a high school teacher told me not to worry and that he would find his group. It's still hard and the comments we sometimes get when in public can be difficult. I think this will help when facing those situations.

PS I read both your work and that of E Moon.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )