Imagine, for one horrific moment, that your child was inside a burning building. Or that you were out hiking and an enraged grizzly bear started running toward your child. Or that your child stepped out into the street in front of a truck. What would be your first instinct? Your first impulse – not guided by rational thought and not necessarily the best plan of action – what would it be? To save your child? To run into that burning building, to throw yourself between your child and the bear, or to dart out into the street to push your child out of the truck’s path? Of course it would. As parents, most of us would do anything we had to, face any danger, in order to keep our children safe. The drive to protect our children is at the core of who we are as parents.
In the worlds of autism and other special needs, we talk a lot about protecting our children. The subject is all over the internet. We hear it from our friends, our family, and random strangers. We have to fight for our children. We have to be warrior moms and dads, and fight to get our children the help they need from doctors, schools, and insurance companies. We have to have the courage to stand up for our children, even if it’s hard and unpleasant. Our children are depending on us.
But what happens if the threat to our child doesn’t come from his environment, but instead comes from his own behaviors? What do we do when our child’s own actions and attitudes threaten not only his immediate well-being, but his future as well? Our first impulse is still to jump into the fray and protect him, but sorting out how to do that becomes much more difficult.
Once when I was browsing an online autism message board, I read a post written by the mother of a boy who had mild autism and was in the second grade. She had just received a phone call from the boy’s school saying that he had spit on his teacher. The mother was upset and didn’t know what to do, so she had turned to her online friends to give her advice. The responses she got from the other mothers were almost universally in agreement. They said it was imperative that the mother find out what the teacher had done to make the child spit on her. Then the mother had to make the teacher change her behavior or change the child’s environment so he would no longer feel a need to spit on people. The teacher might resist her demands but the mother had to insist, after all, spitting is a nasty habit and if the child continued to spit on people he would suffer social consequences. If the parent wanted her child’s classmates to accept him, she had to get the teacher to quit making him spit, and the sooner, the better.
That’s a true story. We, as parents, are so focused on protecting our children from the very real external threats in our world (bullies, users and abusers, chemicals in their environment, unhealthy diets, video games, an uncaring society, stranger danger, drugs and alcohol, etc.), that sometimes we don’t think about the dangers we ourselves are exposing them to every day of their lives.
Let’s say that child’s mother took the advice of those parents on the message board. She marched down to the school (taking her child with her because after all, he needs to learn to stand up for himself) and she gave that teacher a piece of her mind. She told that teacher in no uncertain terms that children with autism are very sensitive to outside stimulus, and that the teacher had better figure out what she was doing to make the poor child spit on her, and if she didn’t (due to her ignorance, prejudice, or just plain meanness), the mother was going to call the principal and the school board and a lawyer to make sure the teacher created an environment that didn’t torture the child and make him behave badly.
What would have happened had the mother followed the advice of the other mothers in her support group? Would she have succeeded in stopping her child from spitting on people? She might have. Maybe the teacher would have managed to come up with a way to convince the child not to spit. Or maybe the teacher would have decided that since mom wasn’t helpful in correcting the child’s behavior that she’d just quit telling mom when the kid spit. Or maybe the spitting would have continued. I have no way of knowing what would have been the primary outcome of the parent’s visit to the teacher. But I do know what the secondary results would have been.
The child would have learned that he could not control his own actions and that it wasn’t reasonable to expect that he could learn how. After all, his mother had said he was prompted by his environment, that he was a good boy who wouldn’t spit except he was put into an environment that made him do it. So obviously, he didn’t need to learn self-control and in fact, he couldn’t.
He would also learn that he was not responsible for his actions. His mother said that clearly that the responsibility lay with other people. So whether he could learn to control his actions or not, it didn’t matter, because it wasn’t his fault and wasn’t his responsibility. Other people were bad if they didn’t prevent him from spitting.
Finally, he’d learn that no matter what situation he found himself in, Mommy could come solve it. Whatever he did, there would be no real consequences, because Mommy could always yell at people until the consequences went away. It would have come as a rude shock to him when he grew up and discovered that Mommy couldn’t yell his boss into not firing him or yell the courts into keeping him out of jail.
Obviously, mom making one trip down to the school probably wouldn’t have a huge effect on her child’s personality and attitudes. But imagine if this was the way mom handled every situation where the child made a mistake or failed. How would that effect him? He would grow up to be someone who believed that when it came to his own shortcomings, he was incapable of addressing them, that he was not at fault nor responsible for them, and that he would never have to suffer consequences because of them. That is huge disability for our children to acquire and it is a very real danger to their future happiness.
The story about the spitting kid is true. It actually happened and that’s really the advice the mother received. It’s a pretty glaring example, but more subtle challenges appear in all of our lives, more often than we’d like – each time the phone rings and it’s from the school, or another parent calls to tell you something she thinks you should know, or you see your child do something that you know isn’t right or healthy. All too often, we have to evaluate a situation and figure out what we should do to help and protect our child. Do we make him feel better and make the problem go away? Do we make him cry as we teach him the skills he will need to survive as an adult? Will our choice crush his spirit and make him feel inadequate, or will it strengthen his self-esteem? Will my child hate me? Our instincts tell us to make our child happy and keep him safe, but is that always the best way of protecting him?
Not only are these choices not easy, it takes a lot of courage to even acknowledge they exist, let alone to actually make these decisions. If I decide that the situation my child is facing is someone else’s fault, then I don’t have to admit that my child’s behavior is a problem. I can squash any doubts I have about how good a parent I am, and I can pretend that my child’s bad behavior doesn’t exist, so I don’t need to worry about what that means for his future. Admitting that my child has a problem is scary. Pretending he doesn’t feels much safer.
Grizzly bears are easy. Defending our child from a bear may kill us, but our instincts tell us exactly what we need to do. Most of our day-to-day decisions are not that clear cut, but they are just as important to our child’s well-being.