Monday, May 11, 2009

"Do you have a Special Needs Child?"

I don't like the term "special needs" when referring to a child.

"Do you have a special needs child?"

Well. Doesn't every parent?

My son doesn't have a label on him. He's not autistic, doesn't have ADHD, he's not explosive or oppositional or defiant. Nor does he wear a Sensory Processing Disorder button on his lapel. Though tee shirts don't come with lapels. But does my son have special needs?

Here's some questions for you:

Do I, as my son's parent, make sure he eats every three hours or so to prevent a whirling dervish in the living room? Or to avoid his little pink toes suctioning to the pillar in the dining room like those sticky lizards you throw at the wall?


Do I utilize certain strategies with my son based on his particular triggers?


I know that he hates to be tickled and will react in violence if you forget this -- and so we have a rule about tickling in our home. I know that he can be impulsive if the energy changes too quickly in the room. So I don't leave him on solo playdates yet.

Picture this: one moment, quiet lego play at Lego Club. Next, it seems -- quite suddenly -- that families are packing up to leave and a boy jumps up to show my son something cool and he grabs the boy's sweatshirt. A big fistful of cotton/poly. Just like that. Like a reflex. No one hurt. No harm, no foul. But come on. How many times do you grab someone's sweatshirt when they want to show you their room?

So I don't leave playdates.

There are certain ways of doing things at my house that help my son accept what goes on around him. When we go to the orthodontist I need to explain everything in explicit detail and in what order it will happen. And also sit next to him to hold his hand.

I know, a lot of the time, what may trigger my son into "inappropriate" behavior. Whatever that is. And so I act pre-emptively in order to prevent melt-downs. I always have something for him to do, I make sure we do several active outings every week and I try and get sand and or water play in as often as I can. The act of his hands sifting through the sand and building trenches for water to go through grounds him, connects him to the earth, and calms him.

My eight year old rarely has these tantrums anymore. Not because he outgrew them, like a magical age he reached or a day on the calendar that passes enabling you to change the way you deal with things and look at your environment. No.

They are more rare now because I have the privilege to stay home with him, where we learn together. I know more about him. I understand that if he acts defiant and I don't engage in his outburst, it goes away.

Tonight I make dinner for my kids and dog. I choose something easy, for my benefit, and vegetarian, also for my benefit. But I consider that the brocolli in it is my son's favorite veggie -- the only one he'll eat right now -- and the olives are my daughter's favorite pizza topping. The noodles are gluten-free for me, but I put real cheese on it, which my daughter quizzed me on before attempting any bites. I had given her mac and chreese (a vegan version) earlier in the day -- which after pushing her fork around in it and gumming three or four bites declared it "not very good."

When I announced dinner was ready, my son ran to the kitchen to examine it.

"Mawwwwmmm! I HATE that!"

I am immediately knee-jerk defensive. "You haven't even tried it!"

"Yes, I have!"

"When? I've never made it before!"

"I did! At Unity. I'm not eating that."

He hasn't been to his old daycare in about two and a half years. And, of course they haven't made this particular meal because I almost made it up myself. (I had cookbook inspiration.)

"This is the only food you are getting until tomorrow morning," I tell him.

His wheels spin. A solution. His voice changes as the caloric muse hits.

"I'll drink the whole jug of milk!" He is triumphant with epiphany.

"You can have one glass."

He is sullen again. He says something menacing at this point, I think. There is kicking of the tent set up in the living room, too, most likely. He counts the plates I am dishing up. Three -- because Paul is still at work.

"I SAID I'M NOT EATING THAT!!!" Think sub-woofer.

"I'm just setting some out. You can eat it or not." I have slipped out of the antagonizer role. I give him the option to sit with us at the table or go to his room by himself. He doesn't answer but he does join us at the table.

I don't manipulate with: "MMM. This is so yummy. You're really missing out." He's not stupid.
I don't highlight that he's not eating or nag him: "Eat your food. Eat your food. Eat your food."
Nor do I irritate him with: "Now remember. NO food for you later. This is it. Eat is now or nothing!"

The three of us engage in pleasant but silly talk during dinner and not so surprising, Robert starts eating. Probably without even knowing it. If I had called attention in some manner to his not eating the food, he would've remembered he wasn't eating it!

So. Does my kid have special needs?


I like to think that every kid has some special needs -- some unique quality that the parents found quite by accident, or maybe they've always known it and the whole family works together seamlessly to create a safe and serene home for the children they have -- a place where everyone's needs are met.

Special or otherwise.

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