Different Means Different
By Dan Coulter
Most of us tend to judge people by how they compare to us. When we run into someone completely different, we usually try and fit him into the framework of our past experience.
Someone who can’t do something we can do, especially after we’ve shown him how to do it or he’s done it before, may seem slow or stubborn or just not trying hard enough.
But sometimes, different means different, and there’s nothing in our experience that prepares us to deal with him.
I’m thinking primarily of kids who have Asperger Syndrome or a similar diagnosis on the autism spectrum.
My son has Asperger Syndrome (AS) and I’ve been interacting with him for 23 years now. He’s accomplished a tremendous amount and I’m enormously proud of him, but sometimes his approach to things baffles me.
It really helps to remind myself that he sees and reacts to some things differently than almost everyone else. And that’s part of the challenge. Even when I know he has AS, he’s so smart and funny and insightful about so many things, it can still take me off guard when he doesn’t automatically do something I assumed he would see as important.
At these times, recalling that he truly has a different perspective helps prevent me from kicking into “Frustration Mode.” In Frustration Mode, our brains and adrenal glands insist on a quick fix. We can harden our voices and demand things of our kids that don’t work and only make the situation worse.
The problem can be even more difficult when our kids encounter teachers or others who find our kids not just different, but new to them and extremely different.
I recently read something a mother had written about her teenage son finally being able to explain what had been going on with him for years. Sometimes a teacher would call on him and he’d know the answer, but be unable to voice it. At other times his mind would go blank. But this only happened intermittently.
Picture being seen as a bright kid who’s unmotivated or stubborn or a smart aleck. Think of trying to please a teacher or parent and having him respond with disappointment or disapproval or discipline. Imagine sometimes being trapped in your own head.
Even if we know our kids have challenges, it’s easy to forget that these challenges don’t always appear consistently or in the same manner. It’s also sometimes hard to remember that we may not know everything about how autism affects our kids. It’s crucial to keep an open mind and keep an extra batch of patience in our back pockets. Some parents do this and seem to also have an “auxiliary patience backpack” at their disposal. I really admire these parents.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be firm and discipline our kids when they need it. But calm, firm discipline that gives our kids the benefit of the doubt is a much different approach than launching into Frustration Mode. If you find yourself in Frustration Mode, it’s best to delay issuing any edicts until you can calm down and think things through.
And while we’re working on our own skills, it’s important to make sure that teachers, coaches, and anyone else who’s going to have significant responsibility for our kids understand how their brains can work differently. It’s also helpful to explain what is and isn’t effective in dealing with an individual child.
I spoke with a mother the other day who went on a study trip with her high school-aged son, who has Asperger Syndrome. She and her son didn’t disclose to the other people on the study trip, sponsored by a college, because her son is bright and could do the work, and his mother was along to smooth the social issues. This worked out fine for them. However, there was another student along on the trip who the mother quickly assessed was on the autism spectrum. The trip leaders couldn’t figure out what caused the student’s different behaviors and, according to the mother, didn’t handle the situation well. This mother had a private talk with the leaders to make them aware of the probable reasons for the student’s behaviors, but overall, it was a wrenching experience for the student.
We need to be confident that other adults know how to deal with our kids before we put our kids in their care. Volunteering to accompany your child’s group during an activity or trip is often a good alternative.
For parents of newly diagnosed children, I should admit that many of us veterans have succumbed to the temptation to send our kids into a situation where we suspected we should disclose a “difference,” but didn’t and hoped for the best. When and how to disclose is a personal decision based on each situation, but I urge you to weigh the pros and cons carefully as you’re making these decisions.
When adults and peers notice the things about our kids that we hope they won’t notice, their imaginations can come up with extreme explanations that can be way off the mark. Even when you disclose, information doesn’t automatically inject competence and compassion into people who are prejudiced and close-minded. But in my experience, our kids are usually treated better -- often much better -- if people know the reasons for their different behaviors.
This is about letting go of what might have been and making things as good as they can be in the real world. It’s sometimes amazing how accepting and supportive people can be -- and how our kids tend to blossom, enjoy life and achieve when they’re accepted for who they are.
After I’d been a father for a few years, a co-worker expecting her first child asked me about becoming a parent. I said, “It’s more wonderful and terrifying than you can possibly imagine.” I still think that’s true. But the more you grab reality and run with it, the more you can temper the terror. As for the wonderful parts, you find they’re largely up to you, and absolutely worth the ride.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR -- Dan Coulter is the writer/producer of a series of videos, titled “Intricate Minds,” that help students understand and accept classmates with Asperger Syndrome and Autism. You can find more articles on his website: coultervideo.com.
Copyright 2006 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used By Permission