Jayma Anne Montgomery
SOME THOUGHTS ON PARENTING A SPECIAL NEEDS LITTLE GIRL
When I first found out I was pregnant with a girl, I cried. These were not tears of joy but racking sobs from a place of deep distress. I had always wanted only boys; I only felt equipped to parent boys. The women in my family are, by nature, headstrong and difficult. We don’t play nicely together. I didn’t want to perpetuate the cycle of mother and daughter butting heads the way that my mother and I have and as she and her mother did before us. Our best friends and co-couple in life are the proud parents of five boys. They are energetic, loud, and have large appetites. They have vastly different personality traits but all of them seem infinitely less complex to interact with than a little girl. My daughter is a force of pure kinetic energy giving off sparks of imaginativeness, perpetual role-playing, creativeness, and full-scale diva meltdowns. I maintain that these traits are just part of her natural temperament and that autism merely amplifies them. I fully expected to have children with challenging personalities, but I never expected to have a special needs child. By the time she was diagnosed in May of last year, my husband and I were at our wit’s end with communication issues, potty training, and tantrums that seemed to be escalating. When the diagnosis came, it was oddly comforting. This meant that we weren’t just cry babies or subpar parents. Instead, we were reassured that we had been blessed with a child who was neurologically wired in an atypical way. The ways in which we had been parented or seen other children parented likely would not be effective for her. We needed professional help and we welcomed it with open arms.
Once I got past the guilt of grossly underestimating the degree of her speech delay, we got down to business. After just a few months of speech therapy, we began to see results. Then, when a spot opened up for occupational therapy, her language really began to take off. We learned that she has a sensory processing deficit that mainly affects her sense of balance, vibratory sensation, and her ability to intuitively sense her joint and body position in space (proprioception). All of that boils down to her drive to spin, twirl, jump, skip, bounce, and run nearly all the time. Ensuring that she gets the proper ‘sensory diet’ satisfies that hunger within her and settles her enough to focus on things that require her to be much less active. She has gone from a standoffish toddler who couldn’t hold a conversation to a friendly little chatterbox who disarms complete strangers.
We just completed our third week of ABA therapy and what a gift this service has been to our family already. Essentially, we have a trained behavior analyst who spends several hours per week figuring out Ellie’s motives and the best interventions for addressing her problematic behaviors. On the surface, it looks like Ellie is getting a dedicated playmate for eighteen hours a week. However, the tech that comes to our house is gathering tons of data and implementing a ‘behavior modification program’ that was designed by the behavior analyst. What that looks like for us is more structure, which I didn’t know we needed until I saw it in action. On weekday afternoons, my husband can continue working from home while our tech works with Ellie for 3.5 hrs. If I’m home, I am free to do things like cooking, cleaning, laundry, or napping. ‘Dinnertime’ is actually an event that we all sit down to now. When Ellie has an epic meltdown, we get real-time feedback on how to handle it as well as the ‘why’ behind that method. The theme of my personal parenting struggle with our daughter has been not understanding her behavior and watching my ‘tried and true’ methods blow up in my face. Now that I have begun to discern the difference between something she is doing for attention versus something she is doing to escape a task, I am more confident in my approach. When that approach proves to be effective, it further reinforces that confidence.
The best example I can think of is Ellie’s propensity for arguing. She seems to have quarrelsome genes built into her DNA. The problem is she frequently argues about obvious facts. Type 1 enneagram me, who is all about the integrity of truth would walk right into her closed-loop argument believing that I could show her the ‘loophole’ so to speak. After all, I couldn’t have my child strongly believing that it was raining outside when it was clearly sunny. The joke would, of course, inevitably be on me and I would wind up frustrated and angry, not having convinced her of anything. Then our therapist pointed out that her arguing behavior was merely for enjoyment and attention. I was skeptical at first. Who argues for fun, right? Well…apparently, my daughter does. So now, when she wants to argue with me about a wet shirt being dry or a dirty spoon being clean, I just ignore her or change the subject. I’m the girl who never wants to lose an argument and can’t help but try to have the last word (I can see my husband nodding his head enthusiastically in agreement), but I have learned in these past few weeks that I don’t have to be this way. And when I choose not to play into the arguing, I am free to move on to other things and save myself unnecessary stress. It just makes me wonder about what other ways I am unknowingly punishing myself (again…I don’t really care to hear my husband’s commentary on this but I can picture him grinning as he mentally lists off about a dozen things).
My point is that parenting is hard and if there are ways to make it easier on yourself that actually turn out to be better for your kids, then you should do them. I’m not sure where I adopted the idea that the hard way is necessarily the better way. I think it might be a West Indian or an immigrant thing. I just don’t want to find myself running on fumes in ten years when she is a teenager and really needs me to be vigilant and invested. And also…I would like to actually enjoy parenting my kids a little more than I do at times. I think this is a way I can begin to do that. After all, our kids aren’t our enemies. Plenty of things and people will fight against them or fight to win them to the wrong side. I want to spend more time learning how to fight with them and for them for the sake of helping them to become good humans who hopefully follow Christ. In my an upcoming post, I'd like to share some thoughts and concerns I have about the challenges of being a Christian who is trying to parent a son in this coo-coo for cocoa puffs world that we are presently living in. I’m just having a heck of a time sorting out my thoughts on that particularly complex matter. My Mother’s Day gift to myself is apparently heavy introspection and self-correction.