When it is used to talk about parenting practices, the word “spoil” brings with it judgement as well as description: It describes overindulging the child, letting them have whatever they want, even when the request is unreasonable or excessive, but it also immediately condemns the practice as ruination of the child because of the more general meaning of the word. There is nothing good about something being spoiled.
And yet, spoiling my son was exactly what was required in order to break through at least two major hurdles in his life caused by his autism. Both times that I indulged his every wish, I was told not to, that it was just encouraging bad habits and causing us unnecessary and extreme expense. But I was acting under the guidance of experts and putting my own knowledge of my son and autism into play. We had success, and my son is not in the least bit ruined, he is only happier and more skilled than before.
The first example is when we were teaching him PECS, a form of communication using pictures to represent what he wanted to communicate because his speech was so limited. Part of the PECS process is to find something that highly motivates the child, and use it to encourage and reward efforts to communicate. In order for the process to be successful – to teach the child that communication efforts are a reliable, good and effective thing – we had to meet every demand for whatever he most desired. For example, if he most desired a type of sweet, and he brought us the picture that represented the sweet, we would meet every single demand with immediate satisfaction, regardless of the time of day or what else we as parents may have been engaged in at the time.
This goes against some basic parenting advice, about teaching the child to wait politely, not to interrupt adults, and not to indulge a child with sweets or otherwise meet ongoing requests for something that in itself is not good for them. But the bigger picture was that communication was the goal, and communication was absolutely essential to his future well-being, so that took precedence.
Furthermore, meeting every single demand was a stage in a process, it was not the point at which the training stopped. It was a transition phase to help him make the connections, once he’d made them and realised the system worked for his needs, further steps involved requiring more of him before he got what he wanted, and eventually introducing a “wait” sign and system too; a sign and system that would have meant nothing to him if we hadn’t first established the meaningfulness and relevance of PECS in his life with the stage of meeting every single demand.
A second example is when we were toilet training him. I used brand-name ridiculously pricey Thomas the Tank Engine toys and play-sets to motivate my son for each stage of the toileting process. I used to order hundreds of dollars of toys in advance multiple times, through a website that specialised in Thomas toys, so they’d be ready to go whenever he had successes. This was at a time when money was very tight, but I knew it was the right thing to do.
Again, it was about finding the right motivator for him. My son has a very good eye for detail, and knows when an item looks like the genuine thing on the TV and when it doesn’t. He was motivated in part by their very sameness, had I just used any old lower cost train and train set, the motivator would have been greatly decreased or maybe not been there at all. I had to start with whatever gave me (and him) the highest chance of success off the bat: if you don’t get things right the first time with an autistic child, it can create whole new anxieties and issues that you then have to overcome before you can try the original challenge again. I had to overcome his existing concerns with something more powerful than all the new experiences he was about to go through.
Similarly as in my first example, this was a transition phase too. I had people telling me that he’ll become reliant on the highly expensive rewards, he didn’t. I knew how to slowly fade out rewards as behaviour became more habitual and less scary for him. I slowly, very slowly, faded it our from a toy for every wee and pooh, to just toys for poohs and stickers for wees, and eventually down to stickers for both, then only used praise. It worked, and we didn’t go broke, and we didn’t ruin his character or create a spoilt brat.
Again, it was a matter of priorities as much as anything too: It was more important that our son learn to use the toilet, than to worry about the possibility to creating a spoilt child. It is easier anyway to undo any spoiling, than to teach toilet training and speech. Autism has a way of putting other parenting concerns into a very different perspective.
So yes, I have at times deliberately spoilt my child by overindulging him and meeting his every demand, and no I did not “spoil” my child’s character or patience in the process.
I have said this many times in my blog and here I say it again: You cannot take the usual parenting strategies for “normal” children, and simply apply them to autistic children. Parenting advice for a child who is developing normally, is not always relevant to our kids. The judgment we receive from strangers and well-meaning do-gooders, is very often loud, harsh and undeserved. We normally don’t have the time or energy to educate and explain what’s happening to every judgemental person we encounter, we have our hands full with our children. If I tied to explain my son’s extraordinary eye for detail as to why I buy branded more expensive products, or tried to explain how PECS works, the person I’m talking to is going to think I’m making excuses rather than the explanations they actually are, if they listen at all. But it’s frankly none of their business anyway.
These are lessons I didn’t learn until after I was in a position to personally know better. It’s easy to be all righteous and indignant once you’re in-the-know. I write for myself, I write to show my understanding and sympathy to others who have been in my situation, but I also write in the hope that just maybe someone who didn’t realise these issues were at play will think twice when they next find themselves in a position to judge. Things are not always as they seem; sometimes spoiling a child really is in their best interests.