Due to Holiday campus closure, we are posting January’s “First Mondays” blog early. Please enjoy and look for our next post on Monday February 1st.
About the Author:
Patty Dobbs Gross created North Star Foundation as a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to place high quality assistance dogs with children who face social and emotional challenges at an affordable price. Patty earned her BA from the University of Massachusetts in Psychology and her MA from the University of Connecticut in Educational Psychology; she is also the author of THE GOLDEN BRIDGE: A Guide to Assistance Dogs Placements for Children Challenged by Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities (Purdue University Press, 2006). Patty has been married for thirty three years to a very patient man, and is the mother of four children who are all an integral part of North Star’s work. Over a quarter century ago her son Danny, now 28, received an assistance dog named Madison from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) to work with his challenge of autism. Dan recently graduated from USC’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts with an MFA in filmmaking and has created North Star’s extensive video library. He is now working with as an editorial assistant in Connecticut and doing freelance work in LA & NYC.
Accepting our Differences at Holiday’s Table
Accepting a child with a developmental difference into your heart can be an easy thing to do, as most children with special needs are quite lovable, but tensions can arise when your child is invited to someone else’s expanded dining room table over the holidays. This is a good time of year to begin preparations to give ourselves the gift of peace through gentle educating of extended family and friends, who are usually trying their level best with your child, who is likely trying his or her best as well to navigate the sometimes choppy and roiling social waters of the holiday season.
Creating proper environments in advance is a good place to start. Appropriate is a word that should come to mind when thinking of classroom environments for children with developmental differences, but at family gatherings we don’t tend to think about this ongoing need; to me, this is analogous to taking a holiday break from giving your child the insulin that his diabetic condition requires. Developmental differences don’t take holiday breaks, and all environments your child enters should first be considered as to their appropriate nature by way of sensory integration as well as social concerns.
The comfort levels of others is also important to consider on holidays, and this is what makes them so tricky. A deft preventive touch here may be in order, and if Grandma likes routine as much as your child, this doesn’t have to be a problem as much as an opportunity to work on the fine art of compromise. They might come to appreciate their shared love of routine and order, and this meta-type thinking is excellent for helping your child take other perspectives at a holiday celebration. You may be selling your child short by way of appreciating their ability to change with patient and nonjudgmental reasoning, or your Mom’s, and giving them this chance to learn and to grow with this experience would be a true gift.
And so sometimes Grandma should get her way and other times your child; this just seems fair, but if Grandpa is convinced that more discipline is the obvious answer to the difficulties of the day, someone really ought to set him straight, preferably before the turkey comes out of the oven. Remind him gently that we cannot fix our loved one’s problems by force, or even by forceful words, and this goes double once removed. Make him gently aware that it’s usually a mistake to even try, especially in front of others who may have had a glass or two of liquid courage in their belly and a spontaneous desire to share how they really feel; this is what happened to us around the time of Dan’s diagnosis at my in-law’s home, who thought I was parenting him wrong. I wasn’t strict enough to their view, and I didn’t physically correct a child they saw as willful when young; they were right about the willful but wrong about my mothering, and we once had a terrible Christmas Day fight about this, with my mother-in-law’s words, “You’re going to be getting calls from the principal!” ringing in my ears rather than the more traditional sleigh bells. (It wasn’t ever true about the principal calling me part, but I ended up calling him plenty one cold winter when we disagreed on who was telling the truth, the three fourth grade boys accused of picking on him, or the word of a kindergartener who spoke in echolalic verse about the experience.)
You may need to remember, even if you don’t want to, that misunderstandings between loved ones can arise based on vantage point more than anything else, and time is often needed to bridge the divide. The next season we tried the holiday gathering thing once again, quite gingerly, with an extra year of early intervention under our belt, but it would take two solid decades of this careful work to unfold before Danny ended up the most frequent (and well behaved) visitor my in-laws had in their later years, and certainly the most prolific writer to them. We lost my mother-in-law several years ago to cancer, so I am grateful I had no desire to hold grudges during those early years, more because I didn’t have the energy than any kind of enlightenment on my part.
The holidays belong to us all, and we all want to put our own stamp on the day, and so Aunt Sally and Uncle Bill might have some trouble with your child’s behavior if they see it in the wrong context. Autism and related developmental differences cannot be fully understood outside of a social context, so these moments can be sharp sticking points to a day that might run more smoothly with increased awareness passed all around as confidently as the stuffing. For instance, a communal moment of silence or short prayer before the meal may be considered a graceful gesture to some, an important religious event to others, or simply a time to practice being very quiet for a few moments for the small fry. Impulse control comes to play here, and although you know it is the lack of it we see on display if the prayer is rudely interrupted, others may see your child’s behavior in a harsher light that may cause sharp words aimed toward your child and whispers in the kitchen about you.
Holiday gatherings at your grandparent’s dining room table in the 50s were a decidedly different event than the gathering at your sister’s condo in 2015, but behavior codes are still in effect, and if your child has trouble decoding them there will likely be trouble escaping snap judgments for rules innocently broken. Some rules are very hard for a child with a difference to follow; I remember a holiday season when the only places we could travel were to homes where Danny could take over their screens and electronics. This, as you may imagine, put great stress on the holidays by way of push coming to shove energy, with factions of the family in the “hand slapping” camp and others in the “let’s just have more stuffing and skate across the frozen surface” crowd. You want to avoid people taking easy sides on this, or even taking any side at all save the one of understanding for all concerned.
We stopped visiting any but the most tolerant of homes when Danny was small, but it took a while until he could be comfortable participating in a holiday celebration without the help of a working VCR, and in the meantime we worked on him to understand the concepts of ownership and etiquette enough to be able to leave other people’s electronics alone. Progress here was measured in inches, as there was really so little to fight and so much to learn, accept and explain to others as time passed.
And if your child creates a real mess when everyone is together, whether a social, emotional or physical one, I know it will be you who cleans it up, apologizes, and ultimately pays for it, but I also know it’s a small price to pay for the lessons everyone is learning along the way.
For although your own spiritual growth usually goes unmeasured after a tough day negotiating peacefully for your child’s rightful place at your family’s table as well as society’s larger banquet, trust me when I tell you that you are developing extraordinary gifts that will reveal themselves as the years pass by virtue of raising a child with a difference. You are becoming not just tolerant of your own child’s differences, but tolerant also of your extended family’s challenges for the learning curves they have yet to negotiate, and learning to forgive them for the ways they may stumble up. This way of thinking is the opposite of being mindblind, a condition that we tend to associate with autism, but one I think we all need to consciously avoid whether we are on the spectrum or not.
Developing mindsight in children is a way to move them forward in a self-reflective and nonjudgmental kind of way, to best develop social and emotional skills as well as resilience; it can also do us and our own relationships more than a bit of good to develop increased awareness of others’ perspectives, so we should let everyone have a front row understanding of the patient and loving negotiations and quiet compromises as they unfold to offer peace to the holiday gathering, for to communicate this even to the cousins is to share a measure of the spiritual growth the adults will also take home with the day, along with some wrapped up leftovers and some pictures on your phone.
It is good to learn early and often that most of us need love most when we’re at our most unlovable. Knowing how it feels to walk in another’s shoes is a good thing, especially when walking the path of a child with a developmental difference, you are not just keeping them good company on their sometimes lonely journey, but also moving toward a magnificent view.
It was at this point in my writing this blog when I heard on the news about the horrific shooting in San Bernardino at a holiday party, and so like Newtown’s sad December, this season ends up being about unimaginable loss. I have no words to express my sorrow to the people of San Bernardino, who welcomed Dan and I so warmly into both your university as well as your hearts when we gave our first presentation together in your auditorium decade ago as well as just last month. I will leave you with my hope that the unconditional love that you foster this troubled holiday season, along with your family’s conscious compromises and growing tolerance for each other, will end up making a difference in the world. Our striving for a deeper understanding of each other should begin with the children at all our tables, for they will be the ones to lead us to a more peaceful future.