This is a tale of contradictions, expectations, and of trying not to laugh in the face of a parenting coach. It eventuates in a lesson about how parenting an autistic child has impacted on the way I parent his younger brother. It starts, with an angel.
My youngest son is an angel, and looks like the part too; he has golden curls, blue eyes, and dimples. Slap some wings on the lad and you’ve got the archetypal cherub. He’s got a couple of issues though, the one of most concern to me is his mild speech delay, which worries me less and less as the months go by and his speech continues to develop. At the start of the year though, I was worried enough to request an assessment and referral to a speech therapist.
The speech therapist finally came on board a couple of weeks back. Her opinion is that his speech delay is not particularly serious, but is clearly there. She thinks he would benefit from being around other children his own age more, which has been problematic since he really doesn’t like the play groups I’ve taken him to so far; he’s very active and sociable but he likes to do his own thing, and not surprisingly doesn’t like it when other kiddies knock over his castles or steal what he’s playing with. He doesn’t react violently at these times though, he cries and tries to leave instead. He is a gentle wee thing.
So the speech therapist gets an “Early Intervention Teacher” involved. Don’t ask me what an early intervention teacher is, I don’t rightly know. My eldest son had one for years and I never quite figured out what she did, other than attend our group meeting with the other therapists and nod and smile a lot, which is fine; nods and smiles are great. To be a bit more charitable, I think they have something to do with behavioural issues. Anyway, so we got one of these lovely ladies on board and she has decided to help me transition my youngest into play-groups that are smaller and have shorter sessions than the ones I’ve tried so far, and she thinks it would be good for my son to have some time without mummy around, so he can learn by frustration (since mummy pre-empts and helps him so readily, apparently). So I’m quite happy to have her help me transition him (and myself), and identify quality groups to attend to this end. And then she mentions a parenting class.
I’m not interested in, or enthused about, parenting classes. Not because they’re not useful, but because I already went through literally years of therapists telling me how to adjust my parenting to perfectly suit an extremely challenging child the first time round, and I got very good at it. I frequently get complimented on my parenting, people generally think I’m doing a good job with both my boys. And I am. Damnit. So why did she mention a parenting class? Well, apparently to give me more strategies and to help me find ways to help my son. Blah blah blah. OK. I force myself to be open-minded. I say I’ll meet with the woman who runs the class and see what she has to say. A few hours later, enter The Parenting Coach.
She’s a lovely lady, with her heart in the right place. She tells me about a 14 week course; it’s free and it includes childcare while the sessions are running. Also, there’s morning tea. I’m sold!
And then she un-sells it, completely.
She needs to find out first whether my son’s behavioural and social issues are severe enough for us to qualify. It quickly becomes obvious as we go through the check list, that his behaviour is not just good, it’s very good. However, on the social questionnaire, he’s not looking so great. Apparently he’s still scoring reasonably well there though, because she ends up saying that she could still qualify my situation for severe enough if we add in my eldest son’s social and behavioural issues. The son who attends a special needs school and has a very comprehensive team of therapists involved in his life already. The son who has a diagnosed condition which explicitly includes behavioural and social issues, by definition. I’m thinking that sounds like “cheating,” and I know already how to parent to his issues, which are after all not things that can be “fixed” by a parenting course. At this point I’m starting to lose a little respect for the woman.
At some point during the questioning, I start to realize something new, then voice my realization to the woman: that one of the real challenges I face with parenting my youngest is that I don’t know what normal toddler behaviour is since my experiential reference point is my special needs kid. I realize that I need a better idea of what I should realistically be expecting of my youngest. I tell her my insight, and she interrupts me to share a platitude: “But what’s normal?” she says with a condescending smile, and starts a rhetoric about the relativity of normalness, which I have heard a thousand times before, and which shatters in the face of real experience of dangerously abnormal behaviour. (I point out too that all the questions she was taking me through before and after this interruption, were themselves aimed at recognizing abnormal behaviours in need to intervention. That she could sit there and tell me there is no normal, while going through a list that would end up with a result about how abnormal my son’s behaviour and social skills are, was a tad silly to say the least.)
I ended up interrupting her back, in an attempt to explain yet again that my reference point for behaviour and social skills in a child was not “typical” or “usual” or whatever word one might like to use there (since she’s so opposed to the word “normal”). I tried to make her understand something as I was still getting my own head around it: I’ve been thinking the past few years that parenting my youngest is like being a parent for the first time in many ways, since the challenges are so different from with my first son, but now I realise that’s not right. It’s more that my parenting experience is distorted, affecting my expectations of my youngest child and in turn my reactions to some of his behaviours. I can illustrate this point by an example that came up in the evaluation with her:
She went on to ask me if my child ever sasses adults. I must point out that the check list is for 3 to 8 year olds, my son is only 2 and a half. Anyway, I think carefully about the question and tell her it’s hard to say since he has a speech delay, but he does tell me to shhh sometimes, and I ask if that counts. She gives me an incredulous look and says she would never have let her two grown sons shhh her. That the behaviour is unacceptable, and I shouldn’t be putting up with that. I try to explain that he mostly does it when he wants mummy to stop singing over something he’s trying to hear, and has only occasionally done it in a cheeky manner (which is to say, he’s using “shhh” as a form of non-verbal communication). But she’s still looking outraged and wants to mark it down as an “often” form of sassing adults, on the form in front of her.
At this point I’m rather amused, because she’s making a big deal out of a two-year old saying “shhh,” and what I dealt with with my eldest child was being physically hit in the mouth when I spoke at all around him for the better part of a year, a child that screamed and cried and bit when I dared to speak in his presence. And here we are worrying about a boy who puts his finger to his mouth and makes a “sh” sound at me. This is why my past parenting experience is relevant, why a reference point of a violent autistic child matters, and why her telling me there’s no such thing as “normal,” was unhelpfully dismissive.
Ironically, by the end of her hour with me, I was feeling like the last thing I needed was her parenting program, or any parenting program. Instead I was reinforced in the impression that my son would benefit from more time with small groups of kids, and with more time away from mummy (who happens to be a very good parent thank-you-very-much), as the early intervention teacher had suggested earlier in the day. I told the woman that I’d call her, that I’d think over whether the program was suitable for us and get back to her by the day of her choice. I hate saying “no” to people’s faces (that is a personal flaw I struggle with, and makes me an easy target for door-to-door sales people by the way).
She rang an hour or so later and reminded me that we could add in my older son’s potential score to make sure we qualify as severe enough for the program, and told me my youngest had scored in the “requires intervention” category for social skills. I didn’t remind her what had become obvious through-out the interview process: That she was pushing things to be marked much worse than they actually are, and that we had to keep twisting the criteria to try to make it relevant for a two-year old instead of a three-year old. As far as I was concerned, she’d corrupted the process. I reiterated I’d call her on the designated day for my decision.
Oh I know I should be kinder to the poor woman – yes she just has my son’s and my’s best interests at heart, or whatever – but I’ve swallowed more than my fair share of platitudes and best intentions over the years. I’ve let people make me feel like a crap mother just because my son was born autistic. I don’t need a parenting course to cure my oldest son’s autism, or to make my youngest have better social skills with other children his age (reminding my readers that this assessor’s idea of poor social skills included my son crying when other kids knock over his towers, and being upset when he doesn’t always get his own way. He’s two years old people, two.)
By the end of this day, I better understood why I think my youngest is heaven-sent; because I’m comparing him to the hell I went through with my oldest son. So yeah, maybe my two year-old isn’t a real angel, but he’s still perfect to me anyway. And maybe I’m not a flawless mother, but I decided a while ago that no such thing exists. At the end of each day, I love both of my children immensely and beyond words, and that love serves them well in making sure I always do my best by them. I refuse to feel guilty for turning down a parenting course, in fact, I’ll take my ability to say “no” to this woman as a sign of personal growth. The next door-to-door sales-man is getting one less yes in my neighbourhood. If I don’t need it, don’t want it, I’m not going to be guilted into saying yes, whether it’s a trial of the latest vacuum cleaner, changing power companies, or a 14 week parenting course by a woman who thinks a two year-old should never say shhh to their mother.