There's Nothing Intuitive About Parenting A Child With Special Needs
I came into this motherhood thing ready. I was in my late 20s, married, had a degree, and had started a consulting business so I could work from home with flexibility. I had babysat, worked as a camp counselor, a camp lifeguard, an after-school program aide, a tutor, a Sunday school teacher, a youth group leader, and a volunteer mentor. I once calculated I had worked with more than 1,000 children by the age of 22. I loved kids; that was just a big part of who I was. I had even worked with kids with some disabilities; when I was 14, my first job was a camp counselor for United Cerebral Palsy.
As it turns out, none of that mattered. I was utterly unprepared for what I got myself into. How could my son be so unique from the 1,000 other children I had worked with? With all that experience, surely I must have learned something, right?
Quick, what’s your instinctive response to the following hypothetical scenario? Your 8-year-old with ADHD and autism, who is doing pretty well in life overall lately, is being taken by a babysitter to an after-school activity that is, shall we say, “non-preferred.” On the way, the sitter stops to buy a bottle of water. Child proceeds to scream at the top of his lungs, run around the store, and outruns the sitter and two store employees for 10 minutes until one of the employees threatens to call the police.
I remember when my son was a baby, my late father told me to stop reading parenting books because it was instinctive. Well, Dad, I hope you’re looking down because if you have instinctive answers to some of these situations, I’m sure you could find a way to send me a divine message in a bottle. Otherwise, allow me to introduce you to a new brand of parenting. It’s called “Not Very Intuitive Parenting.”
Not Very Intuitive Parenting (NVIP) means that you must intentionally eschew everything you think you know about raising children and leave your instincts at the door. Do you want to know how I handled the above situation? First, I sent him to his room, for the safety of all involved. Then I called the child psychologist to develop the consequence. Then I bought poster board and wrote up a big schedule of his activities to see. I’m currently evaluating social story software in between working full-time and dealing with medical appointments for both my child and myself.
NVIP means that I’m not going to succeed at getting my child to hop-to with the “mom look.” He doesn’t decode negative facial expressions. Steam could be coming out of my ears, but I still need to verbally notify him that I am very angry. I remember it being a fairly obvious rule that you shouldn’t bribe children to get them to do what you want them to do. However, many consider incentivizing behaviors as legitimate intervention, and it works for us. Applied behavior analysis requires you to take data on behaviors like following instructions, potty training, greeting people. Again, this works for us, but none of this is intuitive.
What I want you to know about Not Very Intuitive Parenting is that usually, if you see me practicing it, I want to shout “This isn’t what it looks like!” Yes, there is a reason for why I am hugging and comforting my child who just had what looks like a “bratty tantrum,” or why when he does something to cause trouble you might just hear me say “one point.” It might look like a dramatic under-reaction, but you don’t know that he is working hard for something and that was a big setback.
Usually, if my kid is acting up I’m going to employ specific, strategic responses that have been developed with the assistance of experts and following so many hours of assessments and therapies. It may not look like a reasonable response to you, but trust that I tried it your way at first and no one had better parenting “instincts.” Turns out, I just have less use for those native instincts than I expected.
I don’t mean to suggest there is no use at all for a mother’s intuition. I know how high a fever is from a kiss on the forehead. I know when something is wrong. It is the ultimate evolutionary instinct to protect my child above all else, but I also build new instincts for parenting my special needs child. For better or worse, there’s no “because that’s how my parents did it” to fall back on. Instead, I had to come up with a new way.
My skills in advocating for my son medically and educationally have made me a stronger person. I do trust my instincts over the experts now, but my instincts have been reshaped to incorporate the wisdom of highly educated and experienced specialists whose good advice and guidance have helped him already. It’s been reshaped by online communities of folks in the same boat. It’s been reshaped by trying to keep up with cutting-edge research. Now, more often than not, I make decisions based on this specialized body of knowledge rather than instincts, or at least I do when I’m doing it right and not falling into bad habits and ineffective approaches.
So if you too have absolutely no idea what you are doing, it’s OK. Parenting a child with special needs is not just like riding a bicycle. You adapt and you learn how to best help your child. And that driving love? That is the most intuitive thing in the world.