One of the things I’m most proud of as a parent to a child with special needs is that I have never questioned Junior’s ability to learn or do something or go somewhere. Each time a new educational goal is presented or an opportunity to expose Junior to new adventures such as theme parks, roller coasters, or vacation destinations arises..I assume that my son can meet those goals and participate in those activities.
When my son was diagnosed with Autism, I was told that 40% of children like him never learn to communicate. I was told that over 99% of children like him go on to be adults who need constant supervision and live in institutional settings. Mind you, this was long before the onslaught of “high functioning autism”, increased rates of Asperger Syndrome, and the phenomenons of self diagnosis or adulthood diagnosis. I was told all the things my son was never likely to do. Of course, I cried. I cried a lot. I still cry. I prayed like there was no tomorrow and Jesus was knocking on my door (and I am rather agnostic). I went through the stages of grief…all except denial, that is. Then I decided that I wasn’t going let some pretentious, snobby doctor with the worst bedside manner possible tell me what my kid could and couldn’t do. I went on to tell teachers who told me to be more realistic with my long term goals for Junior that I wasn’t about to sign off on them deciding what my son was ultimately capable of when he was only 2 years old.
I decided that if it was even remotely possible for Junior to learn to communicate, then he was capable of learning. I learned how to talk to him in a way he was most likely to understand. I used one word when possible, using the same word consistently. I used short sentences and I used those sentences over and over, word for word.
When his preschool speech therapist suggested sign language, I learned every sign she was attempting to teach him and I used those in addition to verbal communication. When his kindergarten speech therapist and teacher suggested Picture Exchange Communication, I requested copies of all the pictures they were using in the classroom in addition to pictures of common household items, clothing, activities, and food.
When he learned how to read, I noticed that he responded better to written requests, demands, and questions than verbal so I began to write to him and still write to him today. His receptive and expressive communication delays are still very significant but they have improved greatly over the years and I have every reason to hope that he has not peaked yet.
I decided that while 99% of the children like him (as far as severity of Autism goes) end up in assisted living facilities, he could still learn to do many things for himself. At 13, he is still not fully toilet trained but I haven’t given up. I still work on the goal with him. His father and I have also begun to work on teaching him to help out around the house with things such as putting dishes and laundry away, cleaning his room, making his bed, feeding the dogs, and whatever else we think of on the spot.
It simply never occurred to us that Junior couldn’t do certain things. We never questioned leaving him with people we trust. When dear friends offered to watch Junior while we go out for a night alone, we explained that we would rather start small. It began with a quick trip to a nearby store and ended with events like going to see Phantom of the Opera, Meatloaf, even a couple of out of town funerals.
When Junior was barely 3 years old, we bought tickets to fly from Florida to California so he could meet his paternal grandparents. It never occurred to us that his Autism might be a problem. We were just worried that the ear popping would be bothersome and he would get bored on a cross country plane..the same worries parents of “normal” kids have. Of course, we prepared an activity bag and planned to take him for walks up and down the aisles and have him walk to gates at our layovers.
When he was 5 or 6, we decided we wanted to take him to Disney World. We never stopped to worry that the crowds would bother him or that he would get overstimulated and have a meltdown. Of course, we had no reason to because he had never shown that type of anxiety before. We assumed that he would have a ball, like most kids his age do. We never even worried that he wouldn’t like roller coasters or swimming pools. He has gone on to visit San Francisco, New York City, and even drive a 12 seat pontoon boat in Lake Cumberland, Kentucky. We assume that he can and then he just does. I can’t wait to get him on a horse one day.
With every new adventure, we don’t sit around and wonder if Junior’s Autism will be a problem. We assume that he can do anything and he has never disappointed us. We don’t marvel at all he is capable of handling because we have never doubted his potential. On the rare occasion that Junior can’t do something, we don’t mourn. We sit back and evaluate the goal and think of ways to reach it. Then we set out to achieve that goal.
Long after The Little Engine that Could and over a decade before President Obama’s “Yes We Can,” I said, “My son can learn that. My son can do that.” What a shame that more people don’t share this view towards the developmentally disabled or mentally ill. I am convinced that their failure is due mostly to our own failure to believe in and invest in them. It is our job to teach and their job to learn. They can’t do their job if we don’t do ours.
Imagine, all this “Can Do” attitude from an admitted realist. Surely, if I can do it then you can do it.