It starts with a glance followed by a whisper in a supermarket. Why is that child so fussy? Why doesn’t his mother just tell him ‘no’? “No, you cannot push over that stack of canned peaches.” “No, you cannot keep poking that stranger on the arm.” “No, you cannot climb into that bin and hide under the potatoes.”
One implication is clear: “My child would never behave that way.” Another assumption is less explicit: “All children are the same.” But the unmistakable takeaway is, “You are a lousy parent.”
Sometimes the well-meaning if misguided advice-givers speak up. “Are you feeding him too much sugar? Is there too much red dye number two in his diet? Did you immunize him? He looks like he might be on the autism spectrum to me. You know that immunizations cause autism, don’t you? Have you tried swinging a dead cat over your head three times? At midnight? Swinging a dead cat over your head three times at midnight is a well known cure for children who won’t behave in supermarkets.”
And how the parents of neuro-typical children look down their noses and gloat. Like lottery winners giving advice about how to pick the right six numbers: “See, my aunt was born on the 23rd…”
As the spurious advice intensifies, shouldn’t we be allowed to respond? Parents of special needs children should get a “sarcasm pass.” I hereby give permission for these long-suffering parents to shoot back with both barrels: “No, I never thought of that! Brilliant! Turning off the TV! Truly inspired! Thank you so much! None of the therapists, child psychologists, or psychiatrists we’ve consulted ever thought of taking away the iPad! We read every book we could find on child development! But we never even considered a system of punishments and rewards! Good thought! My wife is an M.D., teaches at the University. But no one in the department of medicine ever thought to suggest that we talk to our son about his behavior! Wow! What an idea! Thank goodness we met you when we did! You have solved the problem in five minutes that has been plaguing our family for eight years!”
There may be no excuse for bad behavior for normally achieving children. But there is no excuse for lucky parents to be spewing advice either. Spend a week with an ADHD, defiant, acting out, anxious, autism spectrum child. Then get back to me about how “logical consequences” and “rigorous curriculum” worked in the real world.
Here’s a not too surprising secret: parents of special needs children know that their children have special needs. The developmental delays were apparent at age one when all the other children were taking their first steps and saying their first words. The impairments were manifest when the invitations to the second grade birthday parties did not arrive. The differences were clear long before the child pushed over all the canned peaches in the supermarket.
Or as the mother of a developmentally delayed child explained it to me recently: “What works with other kids doesn’t work with our kid. Heck, what works with our other kids doesn’t work with this kid. His older brother has good grades, good friends, good behavior. His younger brother is also absurdly easy. We know how to parent. But this child just doesn’t respond.
If you believe that all children are the same, then you may also believe that all adults are the same. We can all do anything we set out to do. If we only try hard enough, right? When you get your PhD in mathematics while winning the Boston marathon, please contact me at this email address. I’ll be in the supermarket digging my child out from under the potatoes.