When was he ready? That is one of the questions I get asked often from people who have known Johnny for a long time or from others who have heard of the progress he has made. I like to think that all children develop at their own pace and that any developmental guidelines are in place as “guidelines” but impatient and at times panic stricken parents who feel pressure from other parents, friends, family and professionals forget this. Its easy to do when you look over and see your child struggling at the playground while other parents are talking about yet another milestone their child has conquered and is now a “champion” of.
What about the individual? What about the personality of the child? What happens if you have a special needs child? What happens if your child has Autism? What happens if you are told that you have a narrow window of opportunity to change their lives? What if you are told that early intervention has to happen for maximum results but wait lists and costs are fanning the flames of panic in your heart? What if your child doesn’t seem to be moving through the milestones and might even be regressing? You hear that neuropathways have to be built and you only have a finite time to do this. Why does all of this advice imply that you have a broken child that needs to be fixed in order to be accepted? But wait a second your child is in school trying to access the curriculum and still has to learn a whole bunch of things that other children and parents are taking for granted. When does your child have time to just play? When does your child have time to make friends? When does your child have time to get the extra tutoring help to learn the curriculum in-between therapy sessions? When does your child get to just be a child?
These are all the questions I have asked myself many times. I am constantly managing time and juggling activities. I envy other parents who can just go to the playground and sit with other parents and chat. But then again I don’t because I would miss all the times Princess does something special on the bars or slides or when Johnny does something silly while trying to master climbing up the slide. One of the big things that changed in our lives with Autism is every moment that can be a teaching moment becomes a teaching moment. That wasn’t my original intent as a parent when I first had Johnny as a baby. I was very organic with my approach. I wanted him to just experience the world and let things happen and discover things. I wasn’t allowed to and was made to feel guilty that somehow I wasn’t doing enough. Is he in daycare? Oh you are raising him at home. Do you go to drop in play centres? That’s not enough. Do you go to the playground? Yes but that’s not structured enough. You are a stay at home Mom? There is silence.
I had to change my mindset so that I could help him move forward and really get in there and model things for him ALL THE TIME. I couldn’t just sit back and say that I want my children to be independent so I don’t set any real boundaries and let them problem solve it. I had to learn what executive function challenges are and how to teach through and around them all while figuring out what theory of mind meant and if I believe it. But I do thing that Autism has taught me to be much more flexible then I ever knew I was and get out of my own comfort zones and learn to look at life very differently. Other parents might cringe when their child doesn’t do what they want in a store or restaurant and look around to see if people are watching but we have developed thick skins and instead are determined to remember that all moments, good or challenging (bad) are teaching moments and are part of raising both of our children. I had to now schedule all of our days and makes sure I took him to many structured social opportunities. The professionals were insisting I become a helicopter Mom and attend as many parent training courses as I could. In the back of my mind I kept asking myself when Johnny would be allowed to be “just Johnny” and be the little playful boy he was to us.
I confess recently though I have changed my tactics regarding raising our children. I used to be panicked about tutoring Johnny the Grade 3 curriculum and trying to fill in any gaps from the daytime. Then I had an epiphany. I would help him with printing, typing, reading, math and spelling but in what he felt he needed help with and in ways that I knew he learned better. If printing and typing practice involved this weeks spelling test words then we would use them or we would use Johnny’s words. Johnny wants to learn more how to draw representationally but it all seems hard to my creative artist so I found step by step tutorials online that he can use to learn to draw representationally. I am also following my instincts and doing a more organic approach as well with the kids. Johnny and Princess have been playing very well in the last 3 months together and have really become best friends even though they are 3 years apart. So if they come home from school and want to do a giant parade with all their stuffed animals, dolls, cars and trucks one day and this gets in the way of homework time then that’s what happens. To watch Johnny actually play with his sister and think of ideas of pretend play and just enjoy her then that’s what happens. After years of social communication groups, parent training groups and therapy to see it just happen naturally in front of my eyes in my living room is simply amazing. Johnny is still Autistic and he stims (squeals and flaps) in excitement as his sister helps him do the parade or she lets him play Beethoven’s Fur Elise on the iPad over as the parade music. She is okay if he sits and takes a break just to watch and enjoy the play. Tomorrow Johnny might not do very well on his spelling test but with school there will always be another weekly spelling test but on this day in my living room there is a little boy PLAYING WITH his sister and TALKING to her and playing PRETEND when five years ago I was told that this might never happen. I can only attest to Johnny’s and his Autism but he was ready to enjoy playing with his sister who is very welcoming of him. Psst….he even helped carry her heavy basket up stairs and empty it over and over again when clean up began not because Mommy asked but because Princess asked. At home Johnny is now “just Johnny” and gets to be a kid.