Thursday, January 17, 2013

Unconventional Parent Training

Wife and I have been struggling with the idea of discussing something very personal within our family in a public fashion. Over time, we have learned that we can trust beyond our family and closest friends.

Coming into her second race season, Wife is going to run in the Autism Speaks race in Chicago. If you would like to partner with her, you can click here to donate to the cause.

Autism Speaks is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness and fund research regarding Autism.

This is important to us because our son, JD, is on the "autism spectrum." There is nothing "wrong" with him. Just as there is nothing "wrong" with a deaf child or a child who is not athletic. Simply put, autism is a set of traits that can affect social-emotional behavior, verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.

JD is considered "high functioning." He is able to participate in a traditional school environment and has friendships with "neurotypical" children. One difference, though, is the amount of services and therapy that he receives every week that help teach him the tools needed to function "normally" in society.

There are several blessings that have come from being part of his therapy for four-and-a-half years. Parenting skills, education, and exposure to children with various disorders have all been favorable experiences for our family.

I have no doubt that I am a better parent now that I have been exposed to so much therapy. Being a good student in my school days, I was able to learn how to better work with JD and all children. All of JD's therapy is play-based. When he was younger, they worked on learning animals and their sounds, colors, and shapes. As he got older, they would talk about feelings and social behaviors as well as observational skills. Today, his therapeutic curriculum includes "wh-questions" (who, what, where, when, why, how,) following multi-step directions, and motor skills. All part of traditional early childhood development. The difference is  the level of patience required as well as understanding the type of language needed to be used by the adult.

One of the beneficiaries of all of this is Bunny, JD's little sister. Now that I know how to teach these skills in a one-on-one manner, she is reaping the benefits. The reason I bring her into this is only to demonstrate how helpful the therapy has been to my family and me.

I see other parents with neurotypical children and their lack of exposure to early childhood development and realize that they simply have not been taught the tools that I was exposed to in terms of dealing with young children. The use of schedules, both verbal or visual, to learn expectations and time management; the use of countdowns to learn that activities, whether playtime or something they don't like, eventually come to an end; dentifying words so that the child can mimic your mouth movements and pronounce words correctly; discussing feelings and behaviors in stories that are beyond the written plot. These are all things that were not natural to me as a parent.

In my hockey locker room, a couple of guys were talking about having children. As many of you have gone through, there are prenatal genetic tests that can show serious developmental problems of a child. One of the guys suggested that a child with a severe developmental disorder should be aborted. Not for genetic purification or anything like that, but because the child wouldn't have a life and be a tremendous burden on the family. I was able to say that, having been around children with various developmental disorders, raising such a child is not what any parent envisions when they're conceiving, but the child still has milestones and a personality, just not a traditional one. To an outsider, it appears that the challenged person is lifeless. That couldn't be further from the truth. The person may not show it in traditional ways.

For me, one of the best experiences happened after dealing with our first bout of lice. JD was cleared to go back to class in the middle of the school day, so I walked him out to the playground where his class was playing after lunch. He ran across the field to the jungle gym where his classmates ran up to him and greeted him cheerfully; some of the girls hugged him. They asked him where he'd been and I heard him telling them about having had lice in his hair and all of the things we had to do to overcome that problem. Seeing that he was an important part of the class, that the kids really liked him, and that he was able to relate his story to them almost made me cry. It was one of the happiest moments of my parenthood.

I want to leave my faithful and caring readers with this last thought. Again, there is nothing wrong with JD. If there was a pill that would take away his autism, I would not put him on it. JD is a wonderful person. All he wants to do is play and laugh and interact with people in a positive way. He is full of love. There are challenges that he will face based on certain behavioral traits, but is that different than any of us? I love him exactly the way he is and am looking forward to helping him develop the social tools he will need to put his thoughts and desires into appropriate social context. After all we've been through, I think he's made me a better person.

Again, to partner with our family and help so many other families learn the tools to help them have a normal life, click here to donate on behalf of Wife's team to Autism Speaks. Thank you!

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