Someone asked me recently a question about teaching personal hygiene to their nonverbal child. This was a question about shaving, in this case legs, but it could have been about underarms and certainly could apply to young men’s facial hair as well. It got me thinking about how I doubt my gut instincts or at least question them or perhaps even ignore them when it comes to my Autistic daughter and why that is. This post is not well thought out, I’m just going to say that right from the beginning. I’m mulling this over and would love other’s feedback. Think of this post as a doodle pad and feel free to add your own doodles.
I’ve noticed that when confronted with a question about how to move forward with either of my children I use a couple of different methods to figure out what to do. First I speak with Richard, then in Nic’s case, I’ll speak with him and ask a lot of questions, then I usually will speak with Richard again, sometimes he will have gone to Nic and the two of them will have talked about whatever it is too. We will then discuss, often getting sidetracked with our own histories, there will be lots of comparing notes and then if both of us are still unsure as to how best to proceed we will ask friends, look for literature on the subject, go to the internet, seek professional help, call my mother. (This last is said in jest, sort of, except that sometimes it’s been true.) The point is there are a number of steps we typically take and so far this approach has worked out pretty well.
But what about when your kid’s language is limited or nonexistent, what then? This is where the part of my brain that is firmly rooted in neurotypical thinking gets into a rut, like a record that keeps skipping until you pick the needle up and physically place it elsewhere. I want to change my thinking when it comes to parenting my daughter. I don’t like that I don’t automatically go to her and try to find other ways to communicate with her. I want to make a concerted effort to do things differently, because here’s the thing, Emma has shown me countless times that she can and does have an opinion on any number of topics. I may not have the kind of conversation I can expect to have with my son, it may take more planning, it may not be as “easy” but it is possible. I have to train myself. I have to teach myself and here’s the big revelation – often it takes me a while to learn, but I can and DO learn if I’m patient with myself and give myself the time and encouragement I need.
A couple of months ago I asked Ib (totally and unabashedly giving her new blog, Tiny Grace Notes AKA Ask An Autistic, a plug here because it’s a much-needed and awesome resource, she’s brilliant and I love her, I love you too, Richard, but in a more, you know, marriage-y kind of way :D) anyway, I wanted Ib’s help in trying to interpret some of Em’s scripts. Ib and I brainstormed, but what became clear was that I was looking for a key to unlock her language as I understood it and what Ib kept (patiently) trying to explain to me was that I would never be able to achieve a word for word translation. At one point Ib said, “Do you speak another language?” And I said, “No. I barely speak English, but if you think learning Russian will help me, I’ll learn it.” Ib (I imagined her taking a long, deep, breath) said, and I’m paraphrasing now, No you don’t need to learn Russian, but you need to try to feel what the emotion is in what she’s saying.
At the time, I was completely freaked out, couldn’t understand what she was talking about, but then after a few more conversations, and thankfully Ib didn’t give up on me, I began to understand, I think, what she meant. My literal mind wants a word for word translation, but that doesn’t work. So I’m learning to train myself to ‘hear’ her words differently, which brings me back to the first paragraph regarding questions about parenting and teaching and puberty and everything else. I admit, I’m fumbling my way along here. I don’t have any concrete answers, but I do know that listening is a huge piece in all these questions. Listening to my children, listening to their sensory needs, but also listening to my own instincts.
Questions about puberty, hygiene, shaving and other such matters, I will continue to seek advice, particularly from my Autistic friends, while also taking into account my specific child first and foremost. If it’s a question that is ‘optional’ such as leg shaving, how does my child feel, is it important to them, do they care, are they interested? On issues like teeth brushing, where negligence will result in cavities and larger problems, I don’t think twice. I started teaching both my children how to floss and brush their teeth when they were toddlers. Both kids need to be reminded, but I don’t grapple with whether I’m doing the right thing, I know I am, I know how important it is. But some of this other stuff, I begin to second guess myself.
Em and I have a routine at night. When it’s bedtime she’ll say to me, “Mommy come.” So I will go into her room with her where she lies down and then pats the bed so that I will lie down next to her. In the past she’s said, “Mommy read story.” And I have. But for the last few weeks she hasn’t said that, but instead has talked. At first it sounded like scripting, but when I listened to her I realized she was talking about people and school, the bus, sleepovers, listing people she misses or things she wants to do, just the way my son used to do when he still wanted me to lie next to him at night. So I started asking her, “Hey Em, would you like me to read to you or do you want to talk first?” Every single night Emma responds, “Talk first, then read.”
And honestly. How awesome and amazing is that?
“Talk first, then read.”
Em, Nic and Friend