I am mom to a five year old typical girl and eight year old autistic boy. One of my main tasks as a parent of an autistic child usually revolved around finding children to socialize with my special needs child. I wanted to find some kids to interact with my son on a regular basis so that he can learn ‘normal‘ behavior from them so that he can learn to play, so that he can learn to converse. Finding those kids was always on my radar.
I started looking at my son very differently and my perceptions were shaken once I got introduced to Poovazhagan’s child development philosophy at Therakeyz. Typical children quickly learn the norms and structure imposed by the society, they quickly learn to process information in a particular way from other kids and in the process, most times lose originality of thoughts and ideas unless we take great care in preserving it. Our autistic children are unaffected by these and if left freely will find their own play ideations maybe even better than the typical children. Yes, this is hard to believe and I had trouble believing this myself.
But this realization dawned and strengthened on an evening trip to the local mela, wherein both my children went on a boat ride. The boat was a simple hand paddle boat to be maneuvered by the child himself and both the handles had to be rotated simultaneously using hands to move forward or backward.
First, my daughter was seated and immediately she saw the rest of the children in the pool using the two hand controls and looking at them instantly started gliding smoothly.
My son got seated next, and he, on the other hand, didn’t observe the other children but was more focused on the boat itself. He rotated the right-hand control first, then the left hand control noticed that the boat was not moving forward but just turning around. After a few attempts, he figured out that both handles have to be turned clockwise and anti-clockwise together to move forward and backward. The boat ride was for about 10 minutes. I noticed that whenever my son got stuck in a fleet of boats inside the pool since he had figured out himself what are the different ways the controls could be used, the could easily untangle himself from the pile-up. But on the other hand, my daughter had a bit of a trouble figuring out that handles can also be used singly to rotate the boat. She had just one mindset that the handles have to be rotated together since she didn’t get any time to explore herself.
Of course I have to admit that there is an age difference between my two kids and also that this kind of reasoning and logical understanding for any special child can happen only when a child is given enough opportunities to freely explore without obstructions, he has the confidence to explore himself and his sensory issues are not blocking the learning and exploration.
As I was silently observing my two children from four feet afar, the strongest thought that came to my mind was this; do we really need to push our children to mingle with normal children? Aren’t we hindering their natural growth and thought process? Aren’t we pushing them too much having unrealistic expectations of them performing at the level of normal children? Do we need to put this pressure on our children on a daily basis? Would you agree that the expectations placed on the child in such a setting, especially if the child is verbal hinders any form of exploration and development of confidence? Would you agree that a child’s original thoughts are all killed because they are constantly under pressure to copy other kids? Would you agree that we are forcing our children to run a race with a speed defined by others and not his own? How long will he be able to persist in such an environment? You might argue that the child might not be challenged enough if not in the company of normal children. Yes, every human being needs to be challenged and taken out of the comfort zone to learn. A child will feel challenged if he is able to solve problems if he is able to come up with new ideas himself and he is able to have some wins, but if the child is expected to constantly cope every day it will definitely be stressful rather than challenging. And, in a stressful environment, no learning or exploration can happen.
By trying to fit our special child in a group of normal kids; we make them do what we want, not what the child wants. Every child has their own ideas of doing things. Even an autistic child has. It might not fit the boxes that the society defines or the boxes that we parents define, but they definitely have their own ideas. It is important as parents for us to realize that. This statement does not imply that our special children do not need any exposure to typical children. Of course, they do, but we need to just let them just be in such environment, without any pressure to copy and learn. The child has to be ready for such interactions and readiness will be different for every child. This reminds me of what my friend Nayana often says, our children are like soldiers, they need to be equipped first before being sent to the battlefield.
My typical five years old too has become more exploratory because of all the interactions she has had with the special children. Why? I would like to think that because these children don’t understand the rules set by the society and those set by adults, honestly are the only ones who run, jump, and climb the way little children should.
We limit our child tremendously by expecting them to copy other children. This happens with typical children too. At water parks and play areas, we commonly see parents forcing their little children to get into the water like the other children, to play like the other children. Everyone learns at their own pace and we need to give that time to the child till he is ready meanwhile giving enough opportunities to build their confidence to explore; because confidence can move mountains.
The lesser we put boundaries on with whom our children should mingle so as to learn from others, the more the opportunities we will be able to provide. Every child be it special or not has unique capabilities and its high time we let our children explore those capabilities by letting them interact with every human being and let them learn the way they want and not how we want. What is more important is a non-judgmental accepting environment for any child and not the so-called ‘normal’ environment.
All the great inventions in the universe have happened only from people who always seemed a little crazy to the society isn’t it? Well, I don’t keep any expectations of my son inventing something, which is his forte, but I do expect and hope to give him a childhood that every child deserves; unlimited exploration and learning at his own pace, with all kinds of people.