My recent personal experiences (and stumbles) with a family of an autistic child have reminded me of the difficulties in parenting special needs kids. Imagine the hardship of managing this as a single parent! To be sure, this is not scientific data, but I have seen these four scenarios played out many times over the years.
- Royalty: The special needs child is king or queen of the family. That child’s interests drive activities, purchases, and time investments. You can make a strong case for this preferential treatment, especially when the child is low to moderate functioning. Who needs another tantrum when all it takes is an X-Box or the purchase of every Lego Star Wars set? On the other hand, what happens to siblings (and finances) in this type of environment? I have found that sibling responses are typically at opposite ends of the continuum. Sibs may share the same obsessions or they may resent the kingly role and act as not-so-subtle saboteurs. Marriages often suffer when a child becomes royalty. There never seems to be enough time for the commoners.
- Insulated: These are usually single-child families who are most likely to deny their child is autistic. The family is socially isolated but manages to latch onto one other kid (usually younger or older) as a playmate for the child. These parents struggle mightily when schools tell them their child is atypical, but by middle school, there is no denying the social problems and narrow range of interests which characterize autism. If they have the resources, these families tend to head for private schools where they run into other refugees of school conflicts.
- Conflicted: This particular scenario can be fastened onto any of the above, which causes greater anguish for all concerned. Parents are in serious conflict about their child’s “specialness.” One says there is no problem and the other has spent hours poring over websites on autism. This scenario is most common when one parent has social issues not unlike the child’s. Parent conferences become a tightrope experience for educators, who may feel as though they are talking to an adult version of the student. Teachers are prone to comments like, “That acorn didn’t fall far from the tree.”
- Integrated: This is the most preferable outcome, in my mind. In this scenario, the autistic child is identified but does not shove the other hatchlings out of the nest. The family often accesses community resources and is linked to other families with special needs kids. Sometimes these families have more than one autistic child, so parents may end up on school committees and serve as advocates for special education services. Sibs get equal recognition and are supportive of the special needs kiddo.
None of this is meant as condemnation, or I would be first in line. These scenarios occur in families without special needs kids, too, or at various times in a child’s development. I think the value of analyzing these dynamics lies in determining the best educator responses to each one. More on that in my next post.