Thursday, June 21, 2007

What did you just say? Talking to parents about their kids...


If you were given to understatement, you might say it was indicative of a communication failure, wherein the destination person was overcome by communication noise of some sort.


The other day I had a conversation that was shocking and upsetting. Someone wanted to express concerns to me about my child.

"Hey, I've been wondering," the person said to me, "Did you ummm, you know, get all the tests done for Patience? Did you find out anything?"

"Tests?" I asked in confusion, thinking hard, "Oh, oh right, the hearing test. Yeah, yeah we saw the audiologist at the ENT and everything was fine."

"That's good news," the other person said, "But, actually, I was talking about The Tests."

I thought harder, and was silent for a minute.

"I'm sorry," I said, "I'm not sure what you mean."

"The symptoms," she said insistently, "The ones you were so worried about. So you were taking Patience to get evaluated."

"Ohhhh," I said, "The strephosymbolia! Well, yeah we did get her checked, but it's so inconclusive at this age. Anyway, they did say she wasn't distinguishing frontwards from backwards, so they gave us exercises. We've been doing them and it's great...she's fine, knows front from back now, so it's worked out really well. The good news is we did this now, so she should be all set for kindergarten."

"No," she said impatiently, "Not that." She dropped her voice, "The autism. All of Patience's behavior and problems...the ones that are symptoms of autism. You were so worried, you were planning to take her and get her evaluated. We talked about it, I thought it was a good idea."

You could have knocked me over with a feather I was that shocked.

Patience doesn't have any symptoms of autism. I've never worried about her and autism. I've never told anybody I was going to get her evaluated for it, because there is no point. It's simply never come up before this. Not one other person who knows Patience has ever even wondered.

Now you've heard me talk about Patience, child of my heart, child of my frustration...apple who does not fall far from the tree, but who does her level best to escape its boundaries as often as possible. My clever, creative scientist who can out-think me with one brain lobe tied behind her back.

I've mentioned her slightly persnickety personality: her solid personal boundaries, her slow-to-warmness, her distant and quiet act around some people. How in some ways, she's like a cat: best to not approach too quickly or loudly, but if you sit back and are calm and patient, she'll come to you and what a wonderful thing that is.

But I've never said Patience and autism in any way that links the two.

This is because I do not have this concern. And never have.

That's why I was so surprised during this conversation.

"Uhhh whuuuuuuu???" I squeaked.

The other person was certain I had expressed concern, and had said I was getting her evaluated this past spring.

"Ummmm....noooo," I said, then, more definitely, "No, she hasn't got anything that makes me, or anyone, think autism."

The person was positive I had been concerned about her behavior, her symptoms, all of which screamed autism, this person said.

I felt a weird sense of surreality. Was this a backwards approach of this person trying to tell me that she had concerns?

"No," I said, quite emphatically, "You are mistaken. You must be thinking of someone else. There's absolutely no reason to think she has any form of autism, I've never worried about it, and there was not and is not any need to evaluate it."

The person would not back down. The person was quite definite.

"I probably did talk about autism a lot this past spring," I conceded, "But not about my family, my kids. I was editing a book about autism, publishing it, getting it ready for market. It's a great book, for kids about kids with autism. I probably did talk about that a lot because I think it's a great book. And I might have mentioned that the author has a son who is PDD-NOS, and that the reviewer's son is autistic too, might have mentioned that we had children test this book, some of whom were autistic. But any talk...it was all about the book."

The other person simply said hmm, in a way that clearly communicated disbelief, among other things.

I don't have a problem with autism. I've met a number of kids on the spectrum and through that, and my research, I learned a lot, corrected a lot of mistaken ideas I held. I've gained a tremendous respect for these kids and their parents. I've learned about real symptoms of it, and real potential for kids who have it. I'm no expert, but I'm no ignoramous, either.

All that said, I hope you can understand how bewildered I was that this person had decided that some of my daughter's quirks and characteristics could be twisted around to fit an autism diagnosis. And that I was simply in denial about it.

I imagine somewhere, at heart, it came from a caring place, this concern. But it was erroneous and unsolicited input, and once I had clarified, she should have apologized and backed down.

But it got me thinking. I have always maintained that parents ought to be open to hearing what others might feel compelled to express---from a concerned and loving place---about their child, especially if it has to do with the best interests of the child.

In this case---the first time it happened to me---though, I was not open; I was confused, annoyed, even a little angry and offended. I refused to even pause and ponder---which truthfully, in this case, I don't need to---but it did immediately negate my assumptive philosophy that I---and all parents---ought to be willing to listen.

It's hard to talk to parents about their kids when it comes to worries. I know. I've been on the other side of the fence and it's cost me a friendship. In that case, it began with the school and involved one child bullying Patience, which created an enormous amount of emotional havoc for everyone. Initially, the teacher tried to handle it on her own in the classroom. She alerted me and the school director that there was an issue, and we agreed that her Plan A was good. Still, it failed, as did Plans B, C, D, E, and F. The only solution is to keep the two children separate.

Once Patience was out of the picture, the main target was gone, and it became clear this was more than an issue between two children; this was a widespread behavior problem. Other children were being bothered too, although they kept quiet about it.

In fact, after our experience, another mother happened to carefully ask her child about this child, and found out about some serious bullying incidents. More serious than with Patience, who never let it get There because she said no, told the teacher about it, and got help.

(Earlier this week, I mentioned it suddenly occured to me that children often do not tell, no matter how open a door we may think we create. We all wondered after Monday's post about keeping secrets from parents, will my child not tell me things and if so, how do I get in and find out anyway? I think the answer is to ask ask ask and ask, with occasional interrogating.)

We did try, individually and also officially to open a conversation with the mother of the child who had been bullying, but she denied everything and refused to discuss it.

So it's true, parents are often unapproachable when it comes to problems with their kids, and many stick their heads in the sand, at least for a while---I prefer to call it Processing Time rather than denial.

I'm not in denial, though. If multiple people I knew and trusted had on a variety of different occasions approached me with worries or observations about one of my kids, I would force myself to sit, listen, and think. I think most parents do. In fact, often it is parents paying attention first, and working hard to convince others to take it seriously.

But there is such a fine line, such a delicate balance in who approaches the parent, how they approach, when they approach, and the subject matter to be discussed.

I believe dialogue and outside input can be helpful and valuable to parents and kids, however, there are boundaries, and approaches that will and won't work. While I concede that individual personalities and circumstances are crucial factors, I think there must be some general guidelines that could help us all were we to find ourselves in the position of wanting to discuss a child with his/her parent.

Has anyone ever approached you, concerned about your child? How did they approach you, and what was your reaction?

Have you ever approached another parent about his/her child? How did you approach the other parents and what was his/her reaction?

What guidelines, lessons learned can you share?

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

21 comments:

Mary-LUE said...

This is a tough one, Julie, isn't it?

I've had a couple of people try to talk to me about my son when he was younger. One was a definite bad experience, a person in their twenties, with no kids who witnessed what was some genuinely bad behavior by my son when he was five. She looked right at me and in a very blunt tone told me: "Your son has a problem."

I was less than gracious in my response and, in an even more blunt tone, told her that no, he did not, it was the circumstances and we would not be discussing it.

A couple of years later, someone tried to communicate to me her concern that my son seemed unhappy. Again, it was hard to be gracious, although this person had more experience with my son. The problem is in being told someone's conclusion about your child. It seems that people don't often ask questions about what they've observed. If this person had said, "Colin seems unhappy when I see him. Is that a problem for him?" I think it would have been easier to discuss.

(Colin did express a lot of unhappiness when he was younger but he did kind of grow out of it as his emotional maturity caught up to his intellectual maturity. I don't want anyone to worry!)

But, I might just be overly sensitive. I did make a point of asking every teacher he had for the first few years of elementary school if they thought he had ADD. The answer was always a resounding "NO" and so I left it alone.

I've tried to be very careful about what I bring up with people when it concerns their children. Usually, if I know the parent, I can tell when they are aware and open and when they aren't.

If you are close to someone who has concerns about their child, I think they will ask your opinion eventually. If you are merely an acquaintance, I think you should keep your peace. Teachers, daycare providers have a definitely place to speak up.

Um, yeah, I guess I had something to share on that topic!

slouching mom said...

I think you're right that it's one thing to put out a few feelers, and another thing not to drop the issue when the mom indicates that to her the assessment doesn't resonate at all.

One of my best friends has a son with mild Asperger's, and we have had many conversations about his symptoms, during which I try to listen, ask questions, and even offer my own observations now and then. But if I got the slightest indication from her that my input was confusing, or unwanted, I'd back off so far I'd be in another state. ;)

Lawyer Mama said...

Wow, this is a hard topic. My kids are so young that the most we've been approached about is our youngest and the biting thing. But we already knew it was happening, so we certainly aren't in denial there.

I'm puzzled by your acquaintance's reaction to your explanation that you've never been concerned about autism. It takes a lot of balls to keep pushing the issue after that. I guess that's probably part of what makes you think more about it though, isn't it?

I probably would have reacted in much the same way you did. Unless it's coming from a professional - teacher, psychologist, counselor, etc... who has had a lot of contact with Patience. Otherwise, to push it to the extent that this person did, well that just seems like someone being nosy.

Sober Briquette said...

I asked my daughter's pre-school teachers for some input, because I find her so challenging, and they said they couldn't imagine WHO I was talking about, she's so perfect for them. My MIL reamed me out for even suggesting there was a problem with her because now it's "on her permanent record." Jeez, how am I supposed to get any help if I need it?

I have a faraway friend with a daughter who is PDD-NOS and a nephew with Aspergers. When our mutual friend visited with her sons, friend #1 called me, concerned. "I'm almost sure that K should be tested, but can I say anything? Should I?" It was a difficult situation, but as you observed, in most cases, the mother herself has been watching carefully and already knows. While he was being tested, K's mother agonized over "labeling" her son, but once he was diagnosed and accepted into the program offered, she was relieved and appreciative.

ginabeaner said...

Your child does not have autism. Autism is a very specific dx meeting specific criteria. Three parts: Social, verbal, sensory. You need to fit the criteria in a specific way to qualify.

Quirky does not equal autism.

She may have a few sensory issues but who doesn't? She may be shy but that is not a social deficency.

As far a being approachable for others opinions I would consider the source first. Is this the mother of a child with autism or is the the mother of a typical child who watched a 15 sec news blip on autism on the 6 o'clock news? BIG DIFFERENCE.

I hesitate to offer any opinion on children unless asked. No one is as much of an expert on your child as you are. I would think this rattled your cage a bit and make you think you are missing something. YOU ARE NOT MISSING SOMETHING.

Hugs

NotSoSage said...

I haven't experienced this yet, but I think it's a tough issue to tackle. As most have expressed here, it would really depend on who and where it's coming from. Sometimes, though, a parent may be secretly concerned about some behaviours but afraid to acknowledge or voice those concerns, for fear of seeming paranoid, while hearing another person express those same concerns might give them the freedom to follow through with testing.

Your acquaintance, though, seems way out of line. It seems as though she was trying to tell you something, but what a weird way to do it.

thailandchani said...

Obviously I have not had anyone approach me about my non-existent child.. but I'm going to guess that this, just as with all things, common sense prevails. There's a major difference between a person in authority, a teacher, a close friend or a medical professional asking questions or someone just being a busybody. (It sounds like the woman in your case was the latter. Once you said you had no concerns, she should have dropped it.)

Listening is always a useful information-gathering tool.. but if the person takes it any further, it's entered the realm of rudeness.

Just my two baht :)


Peace,

~Chani

Cecilieaux said...

I'm going with ginabeaner. I have known several autistic children and have read a fair amount about it. Any child who is capable of communicating to a teacher that she is being bullied is not autistic. Period.

Cecilieaux said...

Clicked too soon. To you questions ...

Has anyone ever approached you, concerned about your child? How did they approach you, and what was your reaction?

There was an elementary school counselor and a teacher who called. Complained about use of "F-word" and that my older son had yelled out in the schoolyard "last one to do [something] has to suck Mr. Bundy's d---"

The counselor was Mr. Bundy.

I almost died laughing. But to myself. When I got home I told my son to watch his language in school.

Have you ever approached another parent about his/her child? How did you approach the other parents and what was his/her reaction?

Never. If I've seen bullying behavior in the playground I have approached the child. Bullies are all cowards.

What guidelines, lessons learned can you share?

Keep it simple. Use common sense. Most kids grow up to be reasonably normal human beings. Don't sweat delays in development unless they become problems. Be patient.

My younger child was a bedwetter and a stutterer. All the family made a point not to criticize the betwetting, but to praise the successes. Eventually his bladder grew.

We never said anything about his stuttering, just patiently (very, very patiently) pretended nothing was wrong. He hasn't stuttered for years.

Kyla said...

Her first mistake was approaching you in an ass-backwards way. Trying to pretend you had said something about it and refusing to back down when corrected is wrong no matter if her concerns were valid or not.

No one has ever came to me with concerns about my child that I didn't already see. By the time others were noticing KayTar's differences, we were already on the move with all of this. I think that if someone had, I would have been relieved. We had minor concerns for a while before taking action, but we thought we were expecting too much. The ex-pediatrician kept saying things were fine. If someone had approached me, I would have said "Really? We've thought that too, but the pediatrician says she's fine...maybe we should pursue this." I think that is how I would have responded. I know all people are not in this same boat, though.

I feel like this is an issue you should not broach with another parent unless you know beyond a shadow of a doubt the child needs services that are not being provided because of the parent's lack of recognition of the problems...and you are close enough for that person to accept your questions. Or if the parent asks you, "Do you think it is strange that Susie isn't talking yet?" then by all means, do voice your concerns. Otherwise, I think it may do more harm than good.

If there is truly an issue, developmental, medical, behavioral, parents always come to the realization on their own at some point, because it does not go away. It become undeniable, whether someone voices it or not.

Christine said...

Wow. While your acquaintance may have been coming from a place of caring her approach seemed more about control than help. What a weird way to talk to you about it. I would have reacted as you did today.

I have never had to go to another parent about their kid. Yet. I hope I don't have to, but, as many already noted, the best policy would be to be sensitive and kind. Be receptive to the other person's signals. I would have reacted as you did today.

And you helped publish a book on Autism? cool beans, dude.

kim said...

Everyone is an expert. I'm sorry Julie, I know this hurts and confuses.

Oh have I --let's see, when my oldest was 2-"he's the poster child for Ritalin" And now apparently his asthma is stress related, stress that apparently I cause.

I have to stop now because I'm getting mad all over again.

Again, Julie, I'm sorry that this happened to you. People suck.

Cathy said...

It almost sounds as though SHE had an opinion and tried to mask it as something you had said in order to "soften" it.

And I think that's totally inappropriate.

I would be extremely reluctant to approach another parent with that sort of implied suggestion.

And, while I think I'm open-minded where my kids' teachers and pedi are concerned, I think I'd probably be defensive if subjected to an encounter like the one you described.

Lotta said...

I pulled the same idiot move myself. I met this mom on the playground and she kept talking about how her kid was in this special ed class and then how he was having all these behavior issues. So the next time we met I asked her a question about dealing with a BDD (Behavior disorder kid.) She said she never told me her child was BDD. And she didn't. My brain somehow put it together that she did. I'm sure your friend felt like as big of an a-hole as I did.

Emily said...

I'm with Sober Briquette. I am always checking in with others to see if #1 had issues, mostly because he has a giant IQ and a rather tiny EQ. I can't imagine anyone approaching me first with concerns b/c I am always expressing my worry first. One friend suggested she HAD been worried about social anxiety but no longer was. I appreciated the help with a term for it, esp. given that daddy and grandpa both have social anxiety. Duh -- stupid me for needing someone else to say it.

That said -- your acquaintence should have backed down MUCH sooner!

Aliki2006 said...

I too am so surprised (shocked) that your friend would push the issue. I would have backed off imemdiately and run off in total horror that I had made such a gaffe.

We had an awkward situation last year when Liam's friend at school started playing with another kid who teased Liam and called him names. We debated what to do and while we were debating the mom of Liam's friend found out and was actually peeved at us for not telling her about her son's behavior. It's a touchy situation.

Liam's teacher approached us this past winter about getting him evaluated and I remember feeling a little aghast, although not directly at her. I think because she was his teacher I felt that she had a "right" to talk to us about him.

kaliroz said...

I haven't had anyone approaching me about anything like that. My kidlet's not quite four, so there's plenty of time for it.

I'm flabbergasted this woman confronted you this way. It's so out of line.

I don't know what else to say. I'm speechless.

PunditMom said...

I've not had that experience -- yet. But that's incredibly, how shall I say, forward. I've thought things about the behavior of other children, but there are so many variables, I can't imagine saying something like that -- even if another mother had mentioned it!

Magpie said...

I haven't had anyone say anything to me about my child. I'm a sensitve flower, and I'd probably be sad and mortified and worried as all get out if they did. I hope to not be in that situation. Your friend? That was weird, especially her insistence.

Catherine said...

I've had some concerns, actually, about the children of a close friend for a long time. And the concerns involve the choices of the parents. And I know that speaking these concerns perfectly match my philosophies, as well as those of the parents, as you said. And yet, I can't. CAN'T. Have tried. Its so weird and hard. Hmmm.

bubandpie said...

I think it must have been a case of mistaken identity - she had you mixed up with someone else - but her stubbornness about it is unusual, to say the least.

I've read posts on blogs by parents of autistic children about how to handle situations where they see a child who seems clearly to be autistic, though undiagnosed. There is a kind of specialized knowledge you acquire about what to look for - and as a parent it's easy to be totally blind to the issue. But the debates I've seen have focused on two options (1) say something hesitantly and tactfully, or (2) say nothing at all. The third option (barge in bull-headedly and insist upon your amateur diagnosis in the face of all opposition) doesn't enter onto the radar.