Embrace Rather Than Differentiate - Guest Post By Tara Hayes Johnson
We had just brought our baby girl home from the hospital. She was perfect, so we thought. Her chubby cheeks and sweet disposition had us sold as parents!
As first time parents, we had no idea that our daughter would be 'different' from other children. We first noticed these differences when attending a play group for our daughter. As parents, some of the first cues were lack of developing speech and vocabulary words and her inability to focus and sit still while playing. Her behavior was very unpredictable and so much so, we felt as parents it was in our best interest to have her 'tested'. This is when we heard that diagnosis. The question, 'has anyone told you that your daughter might be Autistic,’ came flying out of the doctor’s mouth. My breath of air had been knocked out of my sail. I remember as a mother I felt gut punched and wondered how I would recover from the words I just heard.
The truth is, I didn't recover right away, and I would be lying to you if I said I had. I allowed myself as a mother to experience and process a range of emotions from anger, to sadness, to hope. It would have even been easy for me to play the blame game. Don't think for a moment the questions didn't come to pass in my mind such as, 'What did I do that was so wrong? Why me? Why her? Why can't she be normal like other children?' I am not suggesting these questions are right or even okay, but I am being real and honest in the truest form. It took quite a while to process what her diagnosis meant and may mean. There were and are continuing to be so many unknowns. I can tell you now that I wouldn't change a thing.
Our daughter is perfectly and magnificently created with great purpose. She has a unique set of gifts and talents that the Lord has greatly blessed her with: her innovation for manipulating fabrics while playing dress up; her passion for math, science, and building blocks; her sense of humor; and her love for being outdoors catching bugs. In some ways, she sounds just like any other 6-year-old and you know why???? BECAUSE she is!
There is so much stigma with the word 'Autism'. When we as parents mention Autism, we get comments such as, 'Oh does that mean she throws fits?' or 'Oh is she non-verbal then?' We should be grateful others are at least taking a moment to show interest and ask questions rather than assuming. It just makes us realize ONE very important thing - is my child so DIFFERENT from other children?
The answer I like to share is 'no', my child just has a different ability and experiences life differently; look at it as a different perspective or angle. I like to think growing to learn and to understand our children through a lens is a continuation of an ongoing learning process. We as parents are feeling out our children and how to best foster their development without crushing their little spirit and they are testing our boundaries of unconditional love, permanency, and stability. I think most of us would agree that we refuse to see limitations put on our children and that we both want to see our children’s' development fostered to its full potential. A disability should never define our children, instead it should be considered a unique attribute, something that makes our child 'their own' because at the end of the day, your child and my child are still individuals with heart and feelings alike; it's the process of emotions and behavior that create the difference, but it is certainly something that should not define their character or identity.
I don't blame you though if you have your own thoughts. I am not an expert here, I am a parent who desires love, acceptance, and awareness for our family and most importantly our daughter. I would empathize if you fall into the trap of society's standards; it's all about follow the 'leader' and 'Simon says, Simon do.' If anything, I am writing this in hopes that this stigma placed on 'special needs' children is broken once and for all. Look, all I am saying is what if we took time to embrace differences. If we continue to declare, 'special needs', that is setting my child and so many children up to be limited in their capabilities. Whenever possible, even with the stares and dirty looks, I endure putting our daughter in the least restrictive environment possible. The benefits are truly endless and far exceed any negative. Our daughter has the opportunity to have positive socialization modeled to her; she has a reason to be challenged and grow more; she is able to see appropriate modeling inside and outside of the classroom; she is taught the sky is the limit and she can do anything with hard work, dedication, and appropriate modeling and mentoring; she has the same opportunities to excel and to demonstrate her strengths and abilities; she has the ability to shine and be her without someone telling her who she has to be; she has the opportunity to overcome any adversity or challenge that she faces with proper help and support.
At some point, whether 'special needs' or NOT, as parents we have to let go. We allow more room and growth for our child when we don't hand hold, but rather guide and steer our child(ren). Our child must learn to become as independent as possible, to problem solve and think for themselves. We get one shot, 18 years, to prepare them for the good & bad, the challenges, the obstacles, and everything in between. We as parents cannot save them from everything, but we can embrace hope, we can teach them how to embrace other cultures, backgrounds differences. We can teach our children in this time how to bring out the best in others and their strengths. We can teach them how to believe in others no matter what their skill level and ability is. We can encourage and build their character to learn from others and that every child is a winner, every child is meant for victory, and every child count, for each was blessed with a plan and purpose for here and now.
Every child, no matter differences matters! The sooner we can place our stigmas, our differences, our assumptions, and any judgment or critical thought aside, the sooner we can begin listening not just with our ears but listening with our hearts. The sooner we listen, the sooner we can process and understand. The sooner we process and understand, the sooner our mindset is able to shift. The sooner we make that shift, the sooner we can embrace each individual child and learn to love them right where they are at in the here and in the now.
Tara Hayes Johnson is wife, mother, blogger, business owner, empowered speaker and an anointed minister of the Gospel. To learn more about Tara and her work visit her here: http://taracherie.org/about/