Category Archives: Self-Confidence

Following the path

Because we have teenagers and because we live in metropolitan NY, our children have friends of all races, religions, and ethnicities. As a family, we have attended several bar and bat mitzvahs over the past years. The functions following the ceremonies have ranged from somewhat basic (none were at home parties, however) to affairs to remember (more like weddings).

What had the most impact for me was not the high-end table service and wonderful food at one event in particular. It was the bat mitzvahs of two girls from Isabella’s class that really got me. Okay, have you ever been to a bar or bat mitzvah? Learning those prayers…and in Yiddish, oy! This is no easy task for any 13-year-old. Throw in a language-based learning disability and you’ve got , well, a possible insurmountable task.

Both girls got through the prayers fine, though I have no ability to critique them. They both sounded sufficiently Jewish and holy to me. What was really truly amazing was what they said in plain English. One girl, aptly named Rebecca, was feted by her mother who told Rebecca they she learned more from her than anything else in life. Yes, I understand that. If you follow the path that your children lay, you will learn about the deeper meaning of life.

The other girl named Nina was incredible. Though neither of her parents had a mitzvah (her father is an Irish Catholic), Nina insisted on taking Hebrew classes. This child has serious fortitude and ambition. Of course, her parents obliged. The speech. I wish I could tell you more about it, but I can’t. I was crying too much. She got up to that podium and said how she knows that things are more difficult for her. Simply recognizing this is huge. Most of our kids do not moan about their challenges. (Recall, Isabella never asks why she and her twin attend different schools.)

On top of this, Nina talked about her mother’s breast cancer…and that she was happy that it was gone. Oh my God, just shoot me! To round out the afternoon, a boy with special needs with whom Nina is acquainted seranded her on the French horn playing a Beatles song. Yes, we had fun at Phoebe’s bat mitzvah, but her talk didn’t particularly move me. Rebecca and Nina’s celebrations left me feeling that our children — the one with special needs — had much to offer the world. I experienced watching their parents follow the paths that each of the girls set. It doesn’t get better than that.

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The fashion show

Every year Isabella’s school hosts a feel good fundraiser. It’s the fashion show. Isabella talks about it incessantly. Most of the kids in the school walk down a runway wearing clothing that has been lent to the school for this very purpose. This year, I think, was the first year that Isabella walked, or rather ran, with a classmate, rather than a teacher. She was really excited. I didn’t give it much thought until she jumped on the runway nearly dragging her partner. Clearly in a hurry, Isabella didn’t stop to get her picture taken. And I was worried about the physical condition of her friend, who is not quite as fast. Thanksfully, everything is okay and she has stopped obssessing about the fashion show. Well, at least until next month when she’ll ask,”When is the fashion show.”

Who am I?

Isabella recently stated that her school was different. I was surprised that she verbalized this fact. I thought, wow, this is great. Isabella knows who she is. She pointed out that her school had a large, grassy area. Yes, that’s different from your brother and sister’s urban schools. But that wasn’t exactly what I was expecting to hear. So, I told her that her school was for children with learning disabilities. Quite indignantly, she replied, “I don’t have a learning disability.” My first thought upon hearing this was: she has no idea who she is. When I told the story to a parent of a child in Isabella’s school, she had a very different reaction. Her’s was: she has self-confidence.

Okay. Those are two quite varied thoughts about self-awareness of a special needs child. Right? Well, maybe not. Maybe, the views are alike. Does she have self-confidence because she does not know who she is? Or, does learning in an environment with children who have similar abilities keep you level. The playing field is level. Children who go to school with varying abilities always know who the kids are who get the best grades, as well as those who get the worst. There are a lot of comparisons. And the comparisons don’t end there. Kids rate looks, clothes, humor, popularity, athletics, weight, body type, and so much more. Isn’t it okay for all girls to believe they are pretty even though they all look different? What’s wrong with a kid who didn’t make the varsity basketball team, but thinks of himself as a great basketball player? Nothing.

Kids need to value themselves for who they are. Period. Not as compared to someone else. Self-confidence derives from valuing yourself, not from valuing someone else. Child psychologists, teachers, parents all say the same thing. More than anything else, self-confidence is the most important value to confer on your child.

I’m feeling good today as a parent of Isabella!

Different, Not Less

The spoken motto of the made-for-TV movie and true-life story “Temple Grandin” is different, not less. And Temple certainly proves herself that. She speaks too loudly and too fast; she does not understand body language; she spins around and around for longer than normal; and she experiences tantrums as a teenager — to name a few of the qualities that label her as different. Those of us with children with neurodevelopmental disorders are all too familiar with these and other “non-typical” behaviors. Our children are mocked, shunned, and left out of “normal” childhood life.

Those were not, however, the Temple qualities that I saw. Temple is certainly not less, as her mother believed; she is more. So much more. She excelled in science, going on to college and a very successful career in animal behavior. Temple’s innovations in animal farming, which encourage the humane treatment of cattle, are currently used in more than half the US beef farms. She is a professor at a university, has a consulting business, has written eight books (so far), and lectures about autism. And, perhaps most important to parents of children with neurodevelopment disorders, Temple lives a totally independent life. Temple is clearly a productive member of society, who happens to have autism. How did that happen? After watching the HBO movie and throwing out all my tissues, I searched for presentations about autism by Temple. Here are the keys that  Temple believes contributed to her success while living with, not suffering from, autism.

  • Turn-taking. To encourage sharing and living in the real world, Temple’s mother hired a nanny who played turn-taking games with her and her sister as a young child.
  • Speech therapy. Though a medical doctor said that Temple would never speak, her mother refused to believe that sentence. Like Helen Keller’s Annie Sullivan, Temple praises her wonderful speech teacher.
  • Nutrition. In her book Developing Talents, Temple says that she has noticed that people on the autism spectrum who are successful at work followed special diets, took nutritional supplements or medication, or used other treatments.
  • Manners. Temple was taught table manners. Bad behavior was not allowed at the table. No stimming. No eating with your hands. No talking with your mouth full.
  • Respect. Temple was taught to greet people. No rude comments. She was expected to adhere to the rules of  genteel society.
  • Responsibility. Temple had chores that she had to do every day. This was required because she was part of a household. Everyone in the family pitches in to help one another.
  • Outdoor time. Temple was encouraged to play and explore outside. Temple bemoans the amount of time that today’s youth spend inside watching television or using computers.
  • Self-care. Temple was required to take care of her personal appearance. No dirty clothes, unkempt hair, or unbrushed teeth.
  • Independence. First, Temple’s mother arranged for her daughter to spend two weeks, which turned into a summer, at her aunt’s ranch. Then, though it was difficult for both of them, Temple attended boarding school.
  • Skill building. Temple took classes like shop and home economics in school. Her mother bought her a play sewing machine on which she made costumes for her school play.
  • Job preparation. Temple’s mother arranged for her to work (for money) for a friend who was a seamstress when she was 13.
  • Mentors. Temple learned to sell her skills and ability before she sold herself, garnering mentors at crucial points in her life. Temple’s most important mentor was her high school science teacher, who encouraged her to attend college. Along the way, Temple found people who saw her strengths.

These are guidelines that parents should apply to all children, not only those with special needs. Neurotypical children usually learn turn-taking by osmosis in kindergarten. They often learn manners by mimicking the adults around them. At about puberty or sometimes earlier, they care about their personal appearance. Children with ASD (autism spectrum disorders), however, need direct instruction for many things that happen naturally for other children. Turn-taking, speech therapy, nutrition, manners, respect — Isabella is okay on all those fronts. Responsibility, outdoor time, and self-care definitely require more work.

Temple has reminded me that I need to raise my expectations for Isabella. She needs to clean up after herself and keep her half of the girls’ bedroom clean (her sister would be much happier). This will require me to make sure that it happens, breaking down cleaning into doable tasks. That means daily monitoring by me. She needs to spend more time outdoors or engage in more energy-expending activities, which means that I have to do this with her. Self-care, well, that’s not so easy. Isabella often uses too much shampoo, doesn’t rinse out the conditioner thoroughly, forgets deodorant, hates to brush her hair, and puts on clothing backwards. We’re working on the self-care portion and have a long way to go. I’m open to suggestions.

The next three keys to Temple’s success (and probably all children) are much more elusive for Isabella. We’re working on independence. She has walked to the store and the mailbox, crossing one street with a stop sign, by herself several times. Isabella has friends who go away to sleep away camp. I have rationalized that I never even sent my other, non-ASD kids to camp. A wise school director pointed out that my other children don’t need the experience that time away from the family garners. I get it, but I’m just not there yet. Funny thing, Isabella is begging us to go to sleep away camp this summer. There’s one not far from my father’s country home. I could move up there for the summer to be closer to Isabella…just in case.

Being a teenager

Two biggies. Driving in the car, Isabella told us that she hated a song and named the group — correctly. Of course, the radio dial was changed immediately until she found an acceptable song. And then she sang along, knowing every word. Okay, she was completely off pitch and her words weren’t perfectly synced with the radio. Who cares! She memorized all the words. This has positive implications for school and learning.

Later, at PF Chang’s, where we go for the gluten-free menu, she was cold. She politely asked the waitress to close the take-out door because she was chilly. Speaking up and advocating for yourself — a very important trait. So many people take advantage of children’s shyness or social akwardness. Once a child has success by bringing herself to the forefront, she will elevate her worth. And, parenting is all about goving children self confidence.