You know how you read all the time about the government monitoring the flow of communication in suspected terrorist networks, looking for patterns that might indicate a mounting credible threat?
Sometimes parenting in Autismland feels a lot like that.
You can't pounce on every small suggestion of a thought that seems to be off-kilter. You have to remain vigilant, attuned to the details while staying focused on the bigger picture. What is an isolated incident? What do the patterns suggest? When is the right time to take action?
It's imperative in Autismland, as in government, that we neither over-react nor under-react. Over-reacting causes panic and paranoia; under-reacting can have devastating results.
I am beginning to recognize a slight pattern of concern in the networks I'm monitoring at Bud's school. Taken in isolation, nothing is a great worry. But it's the pattern that I'm watching and that I'm struggling to interpret.
The messages have been filtering through slowly and gently. The first, in his IEP meeting in June, went something like this:
"I don't think we should encourage him to take Gramps' hat to first grade with him. Other children don't wear hats at school."
A more recent message came through this way:
"Maybe bringing his iPod to school would not be the best idea. He might get too dependent on it. It might be better to find something that other children could use as well."
Taken alone, neither issue is important enough to make a fuss over. Bud will be fine without Gramps' hat, and he will manage without his iPod. As I explained to his teacher, Bud is incredibly flexible in his rigidity. He will, without question, need something to bring him local coherence, but he will be creative in determining what that something will be. Before he discovered Gramps' hat in Kindergarten, Bud stuffed his pockets full of plastic fruit every day. In preschool, Bud sat on the "B" on the alphabet carpet at circle time and carried around the "home" card from his visual schedule. Bud will figure out what he needs to get by in first grade; I'm not worried about that.
But, just like the government agents who monitor the networks, I feel compelled to listen not just to what is being said, but also to what is missing from the messages - to listen not just to the words, but also to the meaning that underscores them.
I need to make sure that if these statements are signs that we are veering off into different philosophical perspectives, I am ready to intervene at the appropriate time to make sure that we don't continue down these divergent paths. I will need to speak up to confirm that "encouraging Bud to be (or just act) like every other child" has not somehow snuck itself between the lines of his IEP.
Bud is not like every other child. Bud is autistic. He will go far, he will do great things, and he will still be autistic.
If Bud had spina bifida, I feel certain that no one would say, "Other children don't use chairs with wheels. In first grade, we walk."
If Bud was hearing impaired, I don't think we'd be concerned about the disparity of letting him be the only child in the room who gets to wear the cool accessory on his ears.
No one would worry that Bud might get too dependent on the wheelchair or the hearing aid.
What makes the accommodations for autism any different?
Children are smart. There was not a single child in Bud's Kindergarten class who didn't recognize that Bud was different. And I don't think there was a child in the class who would have traded places with him, who would have opted to swap the ability to make friends for the privilege of wearing Gramps' hat.
In fact, by allowing Bud to wear Gramps' hat in Kindergarten every day - by letting him literally wear his difference on his head - we gave all of the children in that classroom the opportunity to learn two very important lessons:
1. Different is not "better than" or "worse than"; different is just different.; and
2. Fairness does not equal sameness.
We also allowed Bud to learn a third, and even more valuable, lesson:
You are just right, just as you are.
I'm not obsessing over this. I'm thinking about it, certainly, but ultimately I'm keeping it in perspective. Two incidents do not constitute a pattern, especially when considered in the context of a hundred other messages that indicate that the team at school knows, understands, and respects Bud. This is not a credible threat. It's not time to start banning liquids from all international flights.
But, all the same, I think we need to stay vigilant at the scanners.