I try not to recall or think about my childhood very often, but when I do, I remember my parents as being strict authoritarians. They had EVERYTHING figured out and I was told what to do and how to navigate life. There were few options or choices, because they had the play book and if I deviated from the plan, I was punished and told to start over.
I don’t recall many (if any) situations where they figured out life WITH me. They always were a step ahead of me, laying out the expectations and the road map. Even later in life – as an adult myself – it was made clear to me that they remained the “parents” and I the “child” and I was to submit to their authority. This ultimately led to the demise of our relationship and my parents haven’t seen or spoken to me in over a decade.
So, you can imagine how ill prepared I was to become a parent when I realized that there WAS NO play book. I had vowed many years ago that I wasn’t going to parent like my parents did, but I guess I never assumed it would be as drastically different as it has turned out to be.
This week’s diagnosis of Ethan having ASD has thrown me into yet another tailspin. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how hard parents is at the best of times, let alone with a special needs child. Now I’ve got TWO – with completely different challenges.
I’m going to stick with the sports metaphor here that I started, specifically football – just because football is “my sport” and I understand it the best. The times I get the most frustrated watching a football game, is when the plays are CLEARLY being called solely by the Offensive Coordinator sitting in a booth 200 feet above the field. The quarterback is merely a puppet – even though he is on the field and knows and can feel the pulse of the game better than anyone. Seldom does this result in a Super Bowl. That’s why the side stories that the commentators love so much going into the playoffs and the championship are the stories about how the quarterback and the coaches work together and trust is given from the coach to the quarterback to “call an audible” and make changes to the playbook and game plan on the fly – often in the middle of the play.
I heard once that a famous (winning) quarterback called TWO plays for every time they lined up – one play coming from the sidelines, and one coming from on the field. Then as the quarterback saw how the defense was lining up and reacting, he would yell out one code word and the players would know which play he had chosen to go with. Its this trust of a coach allowing the quarterback to navigate the game that THEY are in the middle of, that allows them to win Super Bowls! And it’s that kind of trust I want with my kids.
Because let’s face it, as a parent I can call all the plays I want – but its another human we’re dealing with here. All they have to do is throw a code red temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store and all of a sudden, my playbook gets thrown out the window and we’re calling in the “special teams” squad.
So here is my plan:
Isn’t this the world’s biggest deficiency? Everywhere we turn, we hear of problems due to “lack of communication” or mistakes being made due to “miscommunication”. Think about your typical day, week, month, etc. The places you go, the people you interact with, and I guarantee you will find communication deficiencies.
The biggest one in parenting is that we believe our kids can process new information immediately. This is so unfair, because even we as adults can’t do this. We don’t give our kids the time or space to process changes or transitions. I’ve witnessed parents barking out to their kids something like, “get your shoes on, we’re leaving!” and then I’ve watched the kid unravel. See the parent has been watching the time, silently planning when they would leave, maybe even doing tasks to prepare for leaving – all the while, leaving the child in the dark to the fact that there were plans in motion to leave. Why? What’s wrong with telling your child that “in 10 minutes, we’re going to get our coat and shoes on and we’re going to go out to the grocery store”? It’s called communication. You have no idea what or how your kids need to process that information.
We’ve done this with Liam since day one, and we’ve seen amazing results. Others have seen this too, asking what our secret is. I honestly believe that most meltdowns that occur are because of a lack of (or poor) communication. Talk to you kid like an adult – like you would want to be talked to. So now with Ethan, we need to take this up a level. He lives life on a much different level than I do; and that scares me! How can I be a father – a DAD to this boy when I don’t understand him?!? I don’t live life like he does. I don’t see like he sees. I don’t feel like he feels.
The answer to this is that I need to foster an environment of trust with Ethan, building confidence with him through constant communication. I need him to show me and tell me what he sees and how he feels so that I can respond appropriately.
2.) Remove Expectations
This one is going to be hard, because the world puts expectations on us. On our kids. On Ethan. That’s why he was diagnosed. He didn’t meet the criteria of expectations to pass the test. An unfair test that everyone is graded on equally – without factoring age into the equation. The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) can be applied to a two-year-old or to an adult – with many of the same expectations and outcomes scored the same. It’s funny to us, and we have freely joked about this, in that we believe most of our friends and family (including ourselves) should be diagnosed with ASD as well. If we’re going to hold steady to this Looney Tunes test that is rigged for you to fail… well then call me autistic too.
This one is going to be hard for me as well, because I grew up under a cloud of expectations. There was an expectation placed on everything in my life. From how to shovel the snow, to how to load the dishwasher to how to practice and play music to how to act in public. I have to wonder what would happen if we removed this from our parenting. I don’t know where the line is between placing expectations on my kids and allowing them to run wild and free. But I DO know that with special needs kids… you HAVE to remove expectations. You HAVE to meet them where they are at. It’s going to be a challenge and it’s going to be hard, but this one is going into my playbook.
3.) Learn and Grow TOGETHER
I’m not afraid to admit to my kids that I’m learning too. Liam, my four-year-old already knows this. We figure so much out together. We admit our mistakes to each other daily. And I believe this is my greatest strength as a parent so far. I refuse to blindly lead my kids ahead just because “I’m the parent”. Because now looking back on my childhood and thinking more about it, I honestly believe my parents were doing just that: blindly leading us into the unknown, at times even lying to us because they didn’t know themselves, but they refused to admit that and show weakness.
That’s not my game plan. I’ve already lost count of the times I’ve said to my kids, “I have no idea… lets figure this out together!”. With Ethan, I think this is going to be my go-to play over and over again. I’m going to call a play from the sidelines, he’s going to call a play from on the field and ultimately it will be based on what he sees and feels that will determine which play gets used. All I can hope for at that point is that he at least considered my play and knew it came from a place of good intentions – because at the end of the day, we’re on the same team.
But why is this all about Ethan? Why is parenting always seen as being all about the kids? I’ve grown and changed so much in the past few years since becoming a parent, some of my pre-parenting friends who I’ve lost contact with, wouldn’t even recognize me today. That’s the part of parenting I didn’t know existed. That’s what is keeping life interesting for me on a daily basis. I’m learning so many new things every day, about life, about my kids and about myself.
In my opinion, parenting is about learning and growing together with your kids. It’s about being open, honest and vulnerable with them. It’s admitting when you don’t know something and asking them to help you. If your kids are anything like mine, they will surprise you. There is NO WAY we can know everything. There is NO WAY we can have a playbook for every situation. And now for me, I never saw myself being a special needs Dad. I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a Special Needs Parent to all three of my kids. But Ethan doesn’t know he has ASD. He’s just growing up trying to figure out everything as a two-year-old. So, I’m choosing to learn and grow with him. He may not be like Liam, and he may not be like the two-year-old across the street. And that’s fine – that’s normal. We wouldn’t want him to be. I love who Ethan is. I love his larger than life personality and I don’t want anything to break his spirit, least of all me!