I don’t know if it’s exaggerating to call this an epiphany. After all, I like a bit of drama. But I’ve experienced a shift in attitude over the last week. Since I spend most of my time reading, writing and thinking about autism, I figured if these new thoughts hadn’t occurred to me, then maybe I ought to share them with you.
Before I had kids, I used to get on very well with my little nieces and nephews. One of my self-styled bonding rules was never to patronise them and always to speak in an ordinary voice (not in cutesy high-pitched tones). For my young neuro-typical relatives, I’d speak more or less as I would to an adult, asking their views and listening to their thoughts. I’m pretty sure that they liked this because I became the Pied Piper for quite a while. Whenever we visited Gavin’s sister I’d be followed by a trail of small people, and I liked it.
After Alec’s accident at the age of two, I seemed to break this rule of mine. Not only that, but I’ve only just realised that I’ve done it. Whilst I speak to Bobby in much the same way as I did to my nieces and nephews all those years ago, I’m often squeezing Alec into a giant hug and coo-ing over him like he’s a little baby. I cringe when I read this. How could I have let that happen?
Do you really need to treat someone who is pre-verbal and who has learning difficulties as if they’re younger than their age? I’ve always rejected trying to assess Alec’s mental age, because it moves about. Of course, if you judge it by what he can achieve at school compared with a ‘normal’ ten year old, his mental age is pretty low. That doesn’t mean that I get to judge how young his thoughts and attitudes are. In some senses he does act like a younger brother to Bobby, but in other ways you can absolutely tell that inside his head he is maturing.
There’s a difference between using simple language and treating someone as if they are simple. Alec is still cute as a button and has profound learning difficulties, but is he going to grow up any quicker if I talk to him as if he’s still a toddler? I don’t do it all of the time, but I do it too much of the time. It’s become a habit.
Here’s the profound question that occurred to me: Can Alec think of himself as any older than five if he gets treated like a five year-old by his mum? Don’t we always show what we expect of people by how we treat them?
The biggest way I can show him that he’s up to the job of developing language is by how I converse with him. Not with complex language, I can still keep it simple, but with a tone of voice that implies that I know he’s growing up.
So, I indicated the sock drawer this morning and said in a sensible voice (which felt somehow unkind) – “It’s the top drawer Alec, have a look.”. And he did, and retrieved some socks. And instead of saying ‘Ooooooh well done whoooose a clever boy then!!!’ I said ‘That’s right, good job’. He couldn’t pretend he couldn’t do it as I hadn’t patronised him enough to allow it.
Because he’s preverbal, repetitive and lives in a sensory universe of his own making, sometimes the only way I can connect with Alec is to make a big fat fuss of him.
Unfortunately, babying him may not be doing him any favours at all. It keeps him where he is. It defines him as younger than he is.
I don’t know why it’s taken me quite this long to realise but perhaps it’s hard to face the fact that I do have a ten year-old who is rather limited in what they can do for their age.
It’s easier to brand him Peter Pan and live forever inside that mother/toddler bubble.
What could happen if I finally let Peter Pan grow up? I guess I’ll find out.