Women and men say all kinds of things before they become parents. They talk about how they are going to do things differently than their own families did. They sometimes judge other families' parenting styles: "My child will never say that." "I would never allow that."
Of course, this is all moot once they become a parent. Then they realize that every parent is kind of winging it, as no kid comes with a guidebook. Kids with developmental disabilities of all kinds, both physical and neurological, are as diverse in thought, behaviour, strengths and weaknesses as their neuro-typical peers. With the added anxiety of raising very different children from what is expected, stress levels are higher, parenting is harder and divorce runs rampant among special needs parents. That is why it is so important for them to remain on the same side.
A piece of advice I would give from parenting my beautiful little boy who has autism over the last eight and a half years is that he is just as able to manipulate my husband and I as any eight-year-old child would be. I remember the first time he played us off each other, and how my parenting style clashed with my husband's. As in most of these cases, nobody won. All that happened was that my son Michael saw that we were on shaky ground, and until we sat down and talked about what had to change in our parenting relationship, our son would still be throwing tantrums for attention, saying controversial things and making life more difficult than it needed to be for all of us. We now have boundaries for him, loving boundaries we are still teaching, and each of us handles things with our own style. However, we agree on similar consequences if certain actions are performed. We also praise and give positive attention for the many things he does well.
As special needs parents, whether your child has Autism, ADHD, ADD, Down Syndrome, Tourette's, whatever, you are facing things like delays in understanding language and processing what is being said. You are also facing milestone delays like kicking or throwing a ball, eating properly with utensils, reading, writing, not to mention lots and lots of frustration and anxiety in expressing emotions no matter how verbal they become. This I can personally attest to. Our children are intelligent, resourceful and have lots to offer the world, but are often seen more in terms of their disabilities than their abilities. Even as parents, we sometimes make this mistake. Also as parents, you have the '"normal" childhood challenges as well as these extra ones to help your children get through. It puts a lot of stress on individuals and relationships. Still, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Here are the things I have learned in finding this light:
- My child is my child. He is funny, assertive, active, sociable and anxious. Autism is not who he is, but only a part of who he is.
- I am not a superwoman who can always be a strong, exceptional special needs parent. I am flawed. I get tired. I make mistakes. That's ok. I forgive myself. I move on.
- Things I enjoyed doing before autism came into my life need to remain in my life. These include reading, writing, exercising, meditating, doing yoga and spending time with family and friends (with and without children, special needs or not).
- My marriage is important, and I want to make more time to have fun with my partner.
- Laughing about life will keep me young, positive and help me through the harder moments in parenting a different child. (Those will come and go in waves.)
So, if you are a parent out there receiving a diagnosis that your child has a developmental disability of any kind, remember that you are not alone. Your child is smarter and more capable than many give him/her credit for. Take care of yourself and of being on the same page as your partner. Your child needs you both to be strong to help them reach their highest potential -- and you'll be proud of them when they do!
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