Parenting Outside the Box, Part Three: The New “Normal”

Article and photos by Melissa Porter, Staff Writer
Banjo player surrounded by children

Harrison helping the band at the 2015 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.

Editor’s Note: This article is the final installment in a series describing one NCI at Frederick parent’s perspective on special needs parenting. Part one can be found here, and part two can be found here.

Parents of special-needs children do their best to help their kids thrive in typical society, but at times this can be challenging. For instance, I want my son, Harrison, to be able to participate in as many activities as he would like—but this can involve more than just signing him up and paying the registration fee. Fortunately, with a flexible approach and some simple tools, we have found that Harrison can still enjoy “normal” activities. Sometimes, all it takes is an honest conversation.

Learning to be Flexible

The other night, as Harrison was finishing up his homework, he stopped and asked me if he was different. This caught me off guard for a second, but then I realized that I had, on some level, been waiting for this conversation to come along. While my husband and I had broached the subject before, we had never gone into detail. I explained to Harrison that he had something called autism, which simply made him see the world a bit differently than others.

We talked some more about it, and then the conversation was over—but it was a start. I have learned that, with Harrison, deeper conversations happen in small increments. We discuss a few points, then Harrison takes time to process them. Often, he will come back and ask more in-depth questions, or he will look up more information on his iPad.

People sometimes ask us whether Harrison knows he has autism. My answer is always no, but not for the reasons most would think.

The reason is most likely that my husband and I have never treated Harrison any differently than we treat our daughters. Sometimes our approach needs to be different, but our expectations stay the same. We still expect him to do his chores, have manners, and listen to his parents just like any other 11-year-old. And we have found that Harrison will meet our expectations.

My husband and I have also learned that there are many ways to accomplish a task. In theory, that’s something most people would agree with, but in practice, it is a much harder thing to learn. When we delegate a task, we also have an expectation (often subconscious) that the task will be carried out in the same way that we would approach it. Yet this is not how it works for those with autism. Harrison almost always has his own unique approach to a task, and I am constantly amazed because his method is not something I would have considered.

Doing “Normal” Activities

When signing up children for a camp, sport, or other activity, a parent’s primary concerns are typically cost and schedule. However, when you have a child with special needs, there are many other factors to consider. Will the coach/teacher/leader be patient and understand my child’s challenges and quirks? Will it be too noisy or bright such that it will cause my child to have sensory overload, triggering a meltdown?

Many people with autism have difficulty processing sensory input. You will often see them cover their ears when things are too noisy or cover their face if there are too many lights. To get an idea of what those with autism experience when there is too much sensory input, you can listen here. This clip helps the rest of us understand why something like a football game or a movie at the theater can be challenging for someone with autism.

When we go to see a movie as a family, our son will wear headphones. Now that he is 11, he automatically knows to grab them before we head into the theater. We also keep a set of headphones in each car, and I generally carry a pair that fold up in my purse. When he was younger, Harrison wore small wrist weights to school. They provided him the deep pressure input that his body needed, which helped him stay calm. Today, he has outgrown the need to wear the weights.

These are just a few examples of the many tools that we and other special needs parents have used to help our kids adapt to the “normal” world. It is also encouraging to see more businesses and communities providing options for those with special needs. By making this the new normal, we can show a whole generation that being different is not a bad thing.

Or, as the world-renowned autism spokesperson, Professor Temple Grandin, says, “Different is not less.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder References and Resources

For more information, check out the websites of the following public and private organizations:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Institute of Mental Health

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Autism Society

Autism Speaks