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Dangerous season for quirky kids

It’s that time of year again: School has started up. Families are getting busy doing whatever they do. And the holidays are marching toward us.

It’s an especially hard time of year for those who have children with special needs. First of all, we’re dealing with our kids’ education. Some of us are fighting for services. Others are fighting to get our kids out of special classes. Many of us are breaking in new teachers. All of us are dealing with the daily grind of having a kid who doesn’t fit in.

During the summer, it looks like a long time between the start of the school year and the pile of holidays that are coming, but suddenly it’s not even October and the stores are full of Halloween. Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

When you’re a parent with an unusual kid, it’s hard ever to be prepared for the stuff that keeps coming at you these few months. Holidays bring their own special kind of stress.

I’m most familiar with the plight of families who have kids with behavioral differences—autism, ADHD, and whatever-you-want-to-call-it kids who have what we like to call their “quirks.” I’m sure families with kids of other kinds of special needs have similar stories—feel free to chime in.

But for those of us with quirky kids, here’s how it works:

First of all, the holidays themselves. Holidays are exciting. Excitement is unsettling. Our kids are hard enough to deal with when they’re settled. The other day my daughter had a major meltdown because I agreed (oh, mommy, will you never learn?) to check if our local party store was going to have Voldemort costumes. All of a sudden it was all so overwhelming: What is a girl to do when she could be Voldemort (though they didn’t, it turned out, plan to carry a costume), or buy a better Gryffindor robe and be Harry (she did, after all, just get those super-cute Harry Potter glasses), or – or – or…

Quirky kid brain on meltdown. It’s not pretty. I had to drag her to the car and banished all talk of Halloween until it’s actually October.

The other thing that comes with holidays is get-togethers. Dinners, parties, all sorts of fun with other people. Our quirky kids want to have fun, too. The thing is, their idea of how to have fun might not go so well with societal expectations. Family members and friends, well-meaning as they think they are, generally just don’t get how hard we’re working to get through an evening.

Take the kids’ table. At family functions, this is often a given. The kids sit together and get to be kids. The grown-ups sit together and talk about boring stuff, without kids to interrupt them and tell them how boring they’re being.

My kids, however, have never handled the kids’ table very well. Child #1 was always more interested in talking to adults than to children. He’d rather sit next to his parents listening to talk about world events or the latest fumble a tech company has made than sit at the kids’ table and do… whatever it is they do at kids’ tables. He was never terribly interested in kids, unless they were kids like him who liked to talk about computers, high tech companies, and sushi.

Child #2 has a different set of needs. She loves being with other kids, but she knows that she easily gets out of control in groups. We’ve been working on life skills, with the help and understanding of the other adults she spends time with. At school, she is allowed to go hang out with the office manager if she feels like she needs a break from being in groups. The office manager puts her to work sorting library books, or just chats with her about whatever is going on. When she’s ready, she goes back to the group activities, recentered.

My parents have been helping as well. She is their unusual grandchild. When she spends time at their house, she likes to have a purpose. They give her jobs like helping out in the garden or taking care of the cats. At big family gatherings, however, she is often at loose ends. And when she’s at loose ends, her self-control starts to unravel. Soon she finds herself doing things that she knows she shouldn’t do. Later, she agrees that she should have behaved differently, but in the heat of the moment, it’s like a switch gets flipped, and she loses control.

I know that it’s hard all around: My siblings see us treating her differently, and they worry that their kids will feel that she’s being given special treatment. But on the other hand, I know that if she is going to navigate a family gathering successfully, she in fact does have to be given special treatment. It’s not special treatment that caters to her desires, but rather special treatment that caters to her needs. If we gave in to her desires, she’d be at the kids’ table more often than not. She’s a kid who wants to be a kid. She wants to be normal.

But while she hasn’t gained complete self-control, she has gained a lot of self-understanding. She has learned, at school, to say “I need to go to the office.” She has learned, at parties or other gatherings, to say “I need to be with my mom or dad.” More and more I see her being able to remove herself from a difficult situation and calm herself before coming back and trying again.

The thing is, our quirky kids aren’t going to just become normal for other people’s comfort. And some adults seem to think that’s an option. They think that our kids’ repetitive noises or behaviors, their hypersensitive ears, or their unusual fears are somehow under their control. Parents with usual kids sometimes seem to think that no one has ever told our kids to stop, as if they have a magic touch and it’s just a case of lax parenting that has led to this unusual child.

I’m sure that people want to help—I can’t imagine that they’re intervening out of a wish to cause the parents greater distress. But those who want to help should consider simple acceptance. Most people simply have no idea what it’s like to raise a child with special needs. They don’t see the enormity of difference between parenting, which is incredibly hard, and parenting an unusual child.

Those who want to help need to accept that this child is different, and will be different no matter what. They need to support the parents, because the parents’ job is hard enough without the judgment and criticism they get in tough situations.

It’s a dangerous season for quirky kids. Do a good deed today and give their parents a break.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.


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