My daughter B has a sensory processing disorder that impacts the way she experiences the world. B is not autistic, at least not by today’s standards, but many of her sensory and anxiety issues are typical of autism. Until recently, children presenting her behaviors remained unclassified and untreated because in so many ways, B is “normal”. She’s highly articulate, charming, and smart as a whip. She also couldn’t pull a shirt over her head until she was nearly five and only recently began walking on her heels. She will go from the happiest kid in the room to a sobbing mess in a nanosecond because of a loud noise or an open banana—apparently bananas are the foulest smelling things on the planet.
We were fortunate enough to have an insurance company that recognized her disorder and assisted with physical therapy, occupational therapy, and traditional therapy. We also live in an amazing school district that classified B as special needs for an inclusive pre-K program that combined specials needs and mainstream children. This year, the school assigned her to the inclusive Kindergarten room as a “normal” kid (since early intervention only recognizes sensory issues as a classifying disorder for pre-K, but not Kindergarten—well played, school).
B attended daycare as well, so most of her friends are, for lack of a better word, average. For the past few years, B and I have crossed between the “special needs” world and the “mainstream” world on a regular basis. One thing I’ve noticed: Special needs parents tend to be more supportive of one another and less judgmental.
I’m not saying that all special needs parents are beacons of warmth or parents of perfectly normal kids are all insensitive. Special needs parents just tend to understand that “bad” behavior is not necessarily a reflection of “bad” parenting. They’ve all been judged. Harshly. So they tend to reserve judgement whenever possible.
They are also more supportive. Some days with B are hard, and the only way through them is to lean on someone who has been there. From practical tips on how to build a visual schedule to a shared laugh, cry or combination of the two, I’ve been encouraged by other parents who are all just trying to do the best they can in a challenging situation. And sometimes, I’ve had the privilege to be that shoulder, to give that advice, to help out in some small way. We may have different jobs, educations, religions, political inclinations, and sexual preferences, but if you’re sobbing because your toddler just threw up at the sound of a lawn mower, I’ll be there for you with a box of tissues and a mop. I’ll probably cry with you, because the same anxiety that grips your child so tightly, grips mine, and it crushes my heart on a regular basis.
But here’s the thing: Being less judgmental and more supportive benefits all parents, not just those with special needs children. While it may be easier for parents in the special needs world to not conflate a child’s behavior with a parent’s ability, all parents deserve to be cut some slack and encouraged from time to time, especially when we may not fully understand the situation. Some developmental issues are obvious to other parents. Some, like B’s, are not. Plus, all kids, regardless of their abilities and challenges, have good and bad days. The same can be said for parents.
So as I toe the line between the special needs world and the mainstream world, I will do the best I can to learn from both and find my balance in each.