Monthly Archives: March 2012

Life with my son

Welcome to the March 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting With Special Needs

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how we parent despite and because of challenges thrown our way. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


For the second time, I’m taking part in the Carnival of Natural Parenting despite not considering myself a Natural Parent, in response to a topic that happened to be relevant to my unnatural self as well.  The topic this month is ‘Parenting With Special Needs’.

My son Jamie, now aged seven, is autistic.  He’s not what you might think of when you think of an autistic child; he doesn’t spend his days sitting in corners rocking unresponsively, locked into his own little world.  He’s fully verbal, attends a mainstream school, and loves to tell you about his computer games, cooking, and the things he’s learning about space and planets at school this term.  But, if you met him, you’d pretty soon notice some unusual things about the way he acts. 

When I say that he loves to tell you about his computer games, that doesn’t really cover it; he will talk incessantly about his computer games, and, while I appreciate that this is within the bounds of normal behaviour for a seven-year-old, the way that he does it isn’t.  He’ll describe the game in obsessive detail without ever giving you any sort of general explanation of what it’s about, unable to see the wood for his focus on every tree.  If you try to stop his monologue to do something else it will freak him out.  So will any attempt to stop him when he’s fixated on an idea or way of doing something (including an idea that someone else in his life should do something in a particular way).  It’s often not obvious in advance when that is – he’s not one of those children who need every little detail of the routine always to be the same, but, when he has got it into his head that things should go a particular way, any expectation that he change his plans without warning will cause all hell to break loose.  He doesn’t really understand how the way he acts can affect the feelings of others.  He doesn’t really get the normal social conventions that other people pick up easily enough to take for granted.  He manages at school only with full-time one-to-one assistance from a teaching assistant and a lot of flexibility on the school’s part about how much of the curriculum he actually does. 

Communication can be a problem because, while Jamie superficially seems to have very good verbal skills, but it really isn’t the way that he most easily takes things in, and I’ve had huge problems with getting his attention to ask him or tell him things.  This can be extremely frustrating, all the more so because he seems able to understand perfectly well when he wants to and it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking he’s just being naughty and ignoring me.  But he isn’t; he genuinely has a problem processing what he hears, and the fact that he often does manage to deal well with that problem doesn’t change the fact that it is a problem.  He’s a lot better at it than he used to be, but it will never be the easiest way for him to take things in.

The key, with this, has been to write things down.  Whether it’s something as simple as the choices available for lunch (for a good while, I had a standard menu saved on my computer to print out a list of choices from which he could pick) or a more complicated issue that needs a social story to help him understand what he should be doing, writing rather than talking has been a huge help.  It seems appropriate; my husband and I met on a social group on the Internet, and now, twelve years later, here we are communicating with our first-born child in writing.

I’ve written before about my attempts at trying positive discipline with my children.  Jamie’s difficulty in communicating his wishes definitely made this harder at first.  Before I’d ever heard the term ‘positive discipline’, I’d devoured Faber and Mazlish’s ‘How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk‘, with their description of solving discipline problems by presenting the dilemma to the children in an empathetic way (“Oh, no!  You and your sister both want to have the yellow cup!  Looks like you both really want it!  What can we do?”) thus inspiring the child to come up with his or her own answers.  I loved the idea and looked forward eagerly to trying it out with my own children as soon as they were old enough (I read it when Jamie was a toddler).  But, for a long time, it was an absolute non-starter for Jamie – he would carry on screaming with no concept whatsoever of the possibility of trying to solve the problem, leaving me wondering unhappily what I was doing wrong.

(I eventually found Ross Greene’s books ‘The Explosive Child‘ and ‘Lost At School‘ to be useful reading here, although they aren’t about autistic children; they’re about working with children who don’t have the normal social skills and do need a lot more prompting through the whole problem-resolving process than the children in the ‘How To Talk…’ examples.  They didn’t teach me anything very new about the process, but the books did help me to realise that it was OK for my son to need quite a bit more guidance through the procedure, and that doing so was helping rather than stifling his development in this area.)

But, as the years have gone by and Jamie has matured further, I’ve found that problem-solving is starting to work.  It’s working more often in the short term, and, little by tiny, tiny bit, he’s picking up more of the skills of self-control and conflict resolution that I want him to learn in the long term.  And, as I’ve learned more about the principles of positive discipline, I’ve realised that they are, if anything, even more important with my son.  Instead of seeing unwanted behaviour as ‘naughty’ and something to punish him out of, I’ve learned to see it as his lack of ability to behave appropriately, and his need for more teaching and guidance.  Or as his response to the stresses that freak him out and that I need to learn to understand.  Often when Jamie acts in a way that seems ‘naughty’ or inappropriate, it’s because some seemingly ordinary part of life is freaking him out in a way it wouldn’t freak out another person, or because, for all his verbal ability, he’s just not very good at explaining his feelings to us. 

I remember one occasion, a couple of years back, when, in the middle of a screaming fit, he made up a rule that Katie and I weren’t allowed in the living room.  I don’t remember the exact rule – I think he defined a narrow age range that was permitted in and that would have excluded both me and Katie while including him – but I do remember him screaming it at us, screaming over and over “You are not allowed in the living room!  Get out!”  I was outraged – how dare he try to make up rules about who was or wasn’t allowed in a room of the house that we all shared?  And then I suddenly thought about what it must be like to be a little boy with autism who really needed a few minutes on his own, just a bit of space, but who wasn’t good at explaining his feelings in words and was feeling too overwhelmed by life right now to phrase his reasonable request in a socially acceptable way.

“Jamie,” I asked him, “do you mean that you want to be on your own in the living room for a bit?”

“Yes,” he said a bit more calmly.

“Then the way you say it is ‘Could you please leave?'”

He repeated the phrase, and I scooped up Katie and left.  Because, after all, once I’d got past the way he was asking to what he was asking, it was a perfectly reasonable request; heaven knows I’ve needed a few minutes (or hours) on my own for down time in the past.  He simply hadn’t known how to ask for it without having a meltdown.  By understanding where he was coming from, I’d been able to help him with the skill he needed.  (And, after that and other similar occasions, he’s since then been able to echo the phrase back when it’s needed at least some of the time.)

Life with Jamie feels normal to us because it is what’s normal to us.  It’s just the way our parenting experience has been.  Maybe it would have felt different if we’d had Katie first and were always comparing Jamie to a memory of a neurotypical (the autistic word for ‘non-autistic’) child of the same age, but, as it is, we pretty much take his differences in our stride and figure out ways to work with them or work round them.  Parenting is about accepting, respecting, and working with your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  Parenting Jamie, with his particular and less common strengths and weaknesses, is just the variation of that principle that we have in our lives.

People so often hear ‘disability’ or ‘autism’ as dark scary words warning of dire fates, but to me, those words have always been positive.  They’re words that open up new worlds of interest to be explored, worlds that hold some of the keys to understanding my son and to understanding more about people anyway.  And they’re words of comfort and reassurance; the words that told me – and still tell me, in times of doubt – that Jamie’s differences and difficulties aren’t due to any failing on my part as his mother, that they’re not evidence of anything I should be doing differently or more of or less of.  They’re words that have freed me to understand him as he really is.

Being Jamie’s mother is often difficult, usually interesting (apart from the whole listening-to-monologues-about-computer-games bit, which is mind-numbingly boring), often challenging, frequently fun, and nearly always exciting and intriguing.  And writing all of that kind of feels like a ‘Duh’, because, well, isn’t that what being anyone’s mother is like?  Obviously, if the genetic shuffle had dealt me a neurotypical child for my first as well as my second then my overall parenting experience would have been rather fundamentally different, but I’m glad that wasn’t how things ended up; I like having one child of each variety, one with whom I can have a fairly normal parenting experience and one who’s stretched my experience and my ways of seeing the world into new and interesting shapes.  Our story isn’t a story of tragic struggle or heroically overcoming the odds or finding new meaning in life – none of the traditional themes for Disability Stories.  It’s just about my two children – one disabled, one not – and about how grateful I am to have such a funny, interesting, challenging, lovable, wonderful little boy and girl in my life.


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be live and updated by afternoon March 13 with all the carnival links.)



Filed under Deep Thought, Here Be Offspring