Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Gatekeeper

… otherwise known as 'The Mom'. That's me. As a mom, and particularly a mom of kids on The Autism Spectrum, I'm often asked what advice or tips I might have for other parents of ASD kids. I'm reluctant to give advice because each family, each kid is so unique that I know the things that have worked for me might not necessarily work for others. The only really helpful 'advice' I can give boils down to two mindsets that I've adopted in recent years and they've served me well.

1. I have a kid, not a diagnosis.
Whenever a situation arises with one of our kids the first thing I remind myself is that I have a normal 12 year old or 14 year old kid who happens to have ASD. Not every challenge, conflict or outburst is because of Autism. Sometimes kids wig out, have disagreements with friends or think school bites. That's just the way it is. So, when my kid comes to me with an issue I don't automatically jump to Autism as the culprit. My kids are more than Autism therefore their life has to be about more than their diagnosis.

As we work through the challenge together, sometimes it becomes evident that the struggle stems from their ASD perspective and that's fine. We address it and move on. And sometimes it has nothing to do with ASD and that's fine. We address still just address the issue and move on. Either way, my kids need to learn how to function and thrive in a nuero-typical world. They need to learn how to manage conflict and problem solve. They need to learn to respect themselves for who they are and to not use Autism as an excuse.

As long as we're talking about excuses … we have a saying in This Random House; Autism is not an excuse for disobedience, disrespect or bad behaviour. It's just not. There is no reason why children, with or without, any type of diagnosis can't be taught to be respectful and polite. It's harder to do with some children than with others but all can be taught. I have seen non-verbal low functioning kids learn how to use manners and indicate their needs calmly because their caregivers have taught the child, not succumbed to the diagnosis.

2. I am the Gatekeeper to their world.

When Dude was little he was an absolute sponge, and to a certain extent he still is. He was constantly studying the world around him, desperate to make sense of it. It was kind of like living with that robot from Short Circuit, "I need more input!" He took in everything he saw, good or bad, and applied it to his own social situations.

At first it was cute but soon we began to realize how sarcasm, 'slams', quasi-swears, verbal jabs/burns, mockery, mimicking and disrespectful tones and facial expressions were turning our boy into a brat. Some of these things he was absorbing through school and neighbourhood contacts but most of it he was observing in our own home, on our own TV.

We'd always thought we were careful about the shows and movies we allowed our kids to watch. We kept things rated G and Disney-esque but when we started really paying attention to what they were taking in we realized how wide we'd left the gate open and how rampant the wolves were in our sheep pen.

Many of the shows our kids watched, though marketed to kids their age, had characters who were wee smart alecs with stupid parents. The themes of most of the shows revolved around dating, greed and bickering. And in between shows the kids were blasted with commercials that quickly convinced them that they needed more toys, more food, more clothes, more EVERYTHING!

We tried limiting their TV time and the shows they were allowed to watch but we had a hard time policing them as they adjusted to the new rules. We also spent far more time than we wanted in negotiations and discussions of the 'why' and 'how long' of these new rules. So eventually we just gave up. No more negations, no more bickering and no more cable.

We cancelled our cable package and disconnected the internet from their computer. We removed all movies from the family room with the exception of Veggie Tales, everything else they had to ask us for. We also disconnected the Wii. We did a full stop on all screens for a few weeks and then we gradually reintroduced appropriate movies and limited gaming time with limited game options.

We aren't religious nuts and we don't think the world is full of evil influences. We do, however, think that we are responsible for what and how our kids learn. This is a weighty responsibility that we can't just shrug off on Family Channel. We need to be intentional with the influences we let into their lives. Even with us being as intentional and careful as we are, we are still constantly fighting against cultural norms and teen attitudes.

And being a Gatekeeper isn't just about stopping things from coming in but it's about inviting the right things in, it's about creating opportunity for learning. We explore, google, read, research and plan our vacations around learning something new. And we talk. We talk a lot in this house.

Everyday we have conversations about who we want to be and what we want to do. We talk about the impact we have on those around us and whether or not we are on track to becoming the people we want to be. And, before you ask, yes it's exhausting and no, I don't always feel like talking, explaining, reasoning and teaching.

 But I am the Gatekeeper and it's my job.

Whether you have a nuero-typical kid or a kid with extra needs, two things are true for all of us; Our children are sacred gifts and we are their first and best teachers. And with that I'll remind you of the best piece of advice I've ever received. My very wise and lovely friend Becky once told me that I don't need to be an extraordinary mom to raise extraordinary kids. I just needed to be a good mom.

Be good to your kids. Be good to yourself.

“When you want to teach children to think, you begin by treating them seriously when they are little, giving them responsibilities, talking to them candidly, providing privacy and solitude for them, and making them readers and thinkers of significant thoughts from the beginning. That’s if you want to teach them to think.” 
― Bertrand Russell


mych said...

The questionably wise Becky here. :-D
Truth be told, my wisdom is borrowed, as is much wisdom. Kevin Leman is a great relationship counsellor with amazing teachings on parenting (as well as other things).
Check out all his books and DVDs, but my favourite is 'Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours'.

Garry Studensky said...

So true Nichole, here is a comment from my sister in law and what she still has to deal with, she has two autistic boys - Ran into an "older" gentleman at Target who told Ted that Jake doesn't belong in public..... WHAT??? Seething right now!!!! Kudos to Ted for telling him "he's not doing anything wrong or hurting anything. Go get educated". Wowzers. Ted's usually so calm but this one hit hard. What's wrong with people??? Arggggg.....