Being told that your child is learning differently from his or her peers or that they may meet criteria for diagnosis such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder or Attention Deficit Disorder can be challenging for parents to hear. As parents we all want to protect our children from the harsh realities of the world, we want them to do well at school and in life. We may need to take time to grieve this loss of the what we thought of as the ideal child. But what other strategies can we use to cope with the news that we may not have wanted to hear?
A wonderful resource that I came across many years ago when I was working on my Masters degree is an essay written by Emily Perl Kingsley in 1987. Emily is an author, social activist and mother of actor Jason Kingsley who was born with Down Syndrome. Jason has had a successful career as an actor. For the full text of the essay check out this link: http://www.our-kids.org/Archives/Holland.html. In Welcome to Holland, Emily Kingsley is talking about the emotional experience of being told your have a child who is different. She points out that this is not all bad news. Emily doesn’t gloss over the fact that it can be shocking to be told that things might be different for your child and that there is a sense of grief and loss which may reoccur. I would support this approach. It’s important to acknowledge that at times as a parent you might feel sad about the loss of this ideal child and that this is OK. But it’s equally important to look forward to the unique things that your child will bring into your life - because they are different.
This essay was written in 1987, more than 30 years ago. In the past 30 years the landscape of education has changed significantly. When I first applied for a teaching job in special education I remember being asked my opinion of this new idea about inclusion. It was as if the school might take it or leave it. Now we take inclusion as a given and educators are continually looking for ways to embrace diversity. Teachers work to ensure that all children no matter what their needs are catered for in mainstream classrooms. The work of the specialist services such as Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour and Ministry of Education are targeted towards ensuring children are able to thrive in their local school. The Teachers Council of Aotearoa is revamping its guidelines for initial training of pre service teachers and I noted with delight that a bigger focus in the new guidelines is on teaching children with additional needs. There is much to be positive about in education for children with additional needs.
If you have been told that your child is different from some other children of the same age keep focused on the child that you know and love. Their strengths have not changed. Use the diagnosis to help you and those who teach and interact with your child understand how best to provide the conditions in which they can thrive. Share the possibilities that your child represents and engage the resources necessary to allow them to progress and achieve their goals. Make sure that everyone including your child knows that ‘Holland’ is a pretty special place even though it might be a bit different from ‘Italy’.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.