At the conference Em and I just returned from I was confronted by someone who told me I was being disrespectful of my daughter. She actually went further and said I had spoken “inappropriately” to her. Furthermore she said these things to me in front of a room filled with people, all of whom could hear her, because she was leading the presentation. Yup. It was one of those moments when you really wish the floor would arbitrarily open up and allow you to slide into its blissful dark, abyss. It was also the final day of the conference and I was feeling pretty fragile and emotional. My ability to filter was at an all time low, my ability to think logically was pretty much non-existent, and finally, my ability to hear her and reflect on her words without defensiveness was hovering in the red-high-alert-grab-your-oxygen-mask-we’re-going-down-save-yourself range. It was one of those moments you wish had never happened, but more to the point you wish you’d never said the thing that was being criticized so publicly. It was a moment of intense shame. And my first thought was – defend, defend, defend!
But remember, I was in overwhelm before her words had found their target and I didn’t feel strong or able to fight back, nor did I feel I was in a position to fight back, after all not only was she leading the workshop, she was someone I have a massive amount of respect and admiration for. This is someone I had looked forward to seeing ever since I was told we would be in her workshop. This was the person I’d read about and anticipated meeting with eager excitement. Meanwhile there my daughter was, typing out “I’m happy.” To which she said, “I’m guessing you’re happy when your mom gets called out on her behavior.” Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Let’s just get a knife while we’re at it and see some real blood.
But here’s the thing… she had a point. The details aren’t relevant, what is, though, is that if I am speaking to my Autistic child in a way that I wouldn’t speak to my non autistic child, then that’s clearly a problem. If I am speaking to my Autistic child in a way that I would speak to my non autistic child, (as was the case in this instance) and someone who has spent their life working with children and advocating for them calls me out on what I’ve just said, I need to, at the very least, consider their words and reflect on my own. I have never claimed to be an ideal parent. Years of parenting has taught me that sometimes I get it right, often I get it wrong, but hopefully I will always be willing to look honestly at my actions and behavior without defensiveness, but with a desire to learn and be the best parent I can be one day at a time.
So if someone says something that really hurts, when their words pierce, I’m old enough and smart enough to spend some time thinking about my reaction and at least try to see where the other person is coming from. Sometimes people say things without the necessary information, sometimes people say things that hurt because they are operating from a set of false assumptions, and sometimes hurtful things are hurtful because there is truth to their words. I’ve spent the last 36 hours trying to figure out which of these was true or if it was a combination of things, but more importantly, I have reflected on whether the sentence I said to my child was the best way I could have spoken to her and if it wasn’t, what would have been.
Even in my state of overwhelm, I was able to whisper to Em right away, “I’m so sorry, Emmy.” And I was. But I was also angry with this other person. I still felt the need to defend. I still wanted to “save face” in front of this room filled with people. But instead I went silent and tried not to cry. Shame. Shame is brutal and though all of us have probably felt first hand what it feels like, we also probably, inadvertently have shamed others without realizing it or even meaning to. I know I have. The above example is a case in point. Without meaning to – I had shamed my daughter by questioning out loud what she’d just typed. I get that. I have enough humility to know that I make tons of mistakes… every day… but I also know the beat up job that is my default reaction to making a mistake is not a healthy one. I’m working toward more measured and thoughtful responses.
One of the things I love about Pascal Cheng, the first person to help me begin supporting Emma with her typing was that when I did something that he saw was unhelpful, he would/will say, “May I give you some feedback?” He then says things like, “Instead of saying, ‘No!’ ask her if that’s the word she meant to type.” He has taught me to try and give her just the right amount of resistance (to make sure that she doesn’t go to favorite scripts) combined with the emotional support and encouragement she needs to continue typing with me. Pascal models the same respectful interaction with everyone he comes into contact with. When I grow up I want to be like Pascal.
But in the meantime, I am looking at my words and seeing how important it is for me to be aware and conscious and respectful of my daughter. Perhaps the better question I must remember to ask myself is not – would I speak to my son this way, but, would I want someone else to speak to me this way? The beauty of life is that we can always improve if we want to. And I desperately want to. My goal isn’t to be “right” or never to do anything “wrong” or to make someone else “wrong” when they confront me, my goal is to have the willingness to look honestly at my behavior and the things I say and do, face my mistakes and learn from them. That’s my goal for this short life I have been given.