The content is part of a paid partnership with Community Care Plan, the health plan with a heart. Visit ccpcares.org to learn more about their plans and how they help members get – and stay – healthy.
Every single day, parents face challenges. Judgement follows us wherever we go. It can come from other parents, customers at a store and even our own families. How we react and what we teach our children will be the difference in what they do and how they treat others growing up and in life. The most important thing after honesty and manners that you can teach a child, and it should start early, is that kindness should be inclusive.
With the help of Community Care Plan – the health plan with a heart – and my dear friends, I’d love to encourage everyone to start creating a more inclusive world for all our children and teaching kids that while others may be different, we can all learn something from each other and have fun.
I would love to introduce you to Grace (7) and Junior (5), who live in different areas of the country, but have both come to learn their differences make them amazing and special. Their mothers have not always had the easiest time feeling the inclusion of kindness, and it’s heartbreaking. We as parents need to do better and teach our children better!
I first met Junior’s Mom at my wedding to my ex-husband. She was a plus one, and we quickly became friends after getting to know each other. Almost a decade! Grace’s Mom and I met in a 2013 pregnancy group and soon became soul sisters. We knew we could count on each other for anything. Grace is less than two weeks older than Davin and never had we even considered that Grace would later be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. I didn’t want to give you a “raising boys” or “raising girls” feature. I wanted to give you a “raising epic kids ‘motivational, do better, be better’” story. Raw and unfiltered.
I may not be the parent of a child on with an autism spectrum disorder, but I have very dear friends who were more than gracious to give me a first-hand look at the emotions that have weighed on them and issues they truly have no control over – being what others do or say. So many people hide behind computer screens but in reality, many are also very blatant in how they approach face to face interactions. Kindness is not a chore. Kindness is not a punishment. Kindness is a level of treating others with respect and learning about differences and how to embrace them. We would have one boring world if everyone was the same!
To begin you must realize that the autism spectrum disorder is not often diagnosed at a very early age. For Junior, just in September of 2019 at the age of five, after a nasty delivery from a neurologist claiming he was the “most hyper child they had seen in a long time” and diagnosed with ASD and ADHD, his mother sought out another opinion.
“Needless to say, we have not gone back since, and shortly after made an appointment with a holistic pediatric doctor,” she said. “Getting confirmation of his diagnosis was mostly a relief – we had known our son was not “typical” for a long time, and gave me the boost I needed to seek out resources to learn more about (and from) autism and autistic people.”
For Grace, her mother knew she was different around 14 months.
“She lost her previously acquired words and stopped walking. We began interventional therapies including speech and physical therapy. Unfortunately, the majority of physicians/psychologists will not make an autism diagnosis until age 2, but I knew she had autism around 16 months, when she was still not speaking, not making eye contact, and not sharing emotions. At age 2 years and 3 months after months of fighting for a referral, she was tested and diagnosed by a neuropsychiatrist with severe autism. I was told she may never speak. I remember being very upset. I had so many dreams about her taking ballet classes, playing soccer, going to college, getting married. And I cried for several weeks mourning the dreams I had for her and the parent I thought I would be. I didn’t shower. I didn’t go get groceries. I felt so alone. I deleted nearly all my friends with healthy children on social media. It hurt too much watching them learn the alphabet or shapes and colors.“
Knowing this information, my heart ached for my friends and I wanted to really understand how we as a world of humans can do better. So, I asked. I asked them what the kindest things others have said or done were … and what were the nastiest. How people treated them and their kids differently. How we could encourage others to do better and interact with the children and parents with interest instead of judgements.
Grace’s mom drove a point with actions and words. “I noticed it a lot more as she got older. She would attempt to befriend other children on the playground, offering her hand to hold or following them. A lot of the times, the kids were mean, calling her weird and running and hiding from her. The parents never intervened. One time a mom asked me if she was retarded. I never went back to that park again.”
For Junior, it was about him wanting to communicate and others not being as responsive, as he had gone from nonverbal to speaking in short phrases. “I’ve had parents swoop down to ‘protect’ their children from my son who has run over to take a look at whatever toy their child is playing with. When I calmly walk over to explain that he is still learning, or that he is an autistic, I am often met with a blank stare. I’ve had more negative interactions than I want to remember, but thankfully have also had many, many wonderful ones with people who don’t even need an explanation. They make comments about how energetic, healthy, happy, curious and sweet my son is.”
Too often, I have seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears: judgements and rudeness. Parents coming to assumptions that autistic children are ill behaved, rude, or need disciplined. Children are not born with that assumption or rudeness; it is taught.
For Junior’s mom, it came as a small moment to how others could be.
“I am so appreciative when a child (or adult) actually asks me about my son when they perceive something they don’t understand, such as why he sometimes repeats the same word over and over. I can then explain to the child that he is working on his speech and likes how some words sound, that he is also doing his best to interact and play. Just earlier this week, I was pushing my son on a swing, when a couple of ladies came over to sit on the swings next to us. One of them was observing my son who was squealing and giggling with delight as I pushed him. She was smiling and commenting about how happy he looked. Finally, she asked, “Is he nonverbal?” I replied that he was nonverbal until a little less than 2 years ago, but that he’s progressed a lot since then, and asked if she has experience with nonverbal people. She explained that she was getting certified in occupational therapy, and we chatted for a few minutes.”
”I quickly realized I wanted and needed to connect with this woman, so we exchanged Facebook information. I later told her how much it meant to me that she saw my son, saw his joy, and that she started a conversation. She told me she’d been hesitant and didn’t want to be rude or offensive by asking. I told her how much it means to me when people speak up, ask questions and get a conversation going, especially when it comes to my child. We need more adults to ask questions, to model the idea that if you don’t know, it’s okay to ask. Don’t assume my child is simply naughty, rude or that I am a bad parent. If you see a child behaving differently than you expect, keep an open mind. Ask questions. Not all differences are physical in nature. Ask on your child’s behalf about my child’s interests, and find out how your child might be able to interact with mine. There are so many ways to teach your children to be patient and inclusive – please be willing to learn for the both of you!”
So how can we do better? For Grace’s mom, it’s simple and so rewarding. “There were rare instances of kindness—children that would include her, parents that would realize Grace was different and would talk to their children. The best explanation I ever heard was ‘This is Grace. She’s your age. She has a little trouble speaking and following directions, but she wants to play with you, and might need your help.
As we know from songs and childhood television, a smile can go a long way! Junior’s mom said it’s simple! “First, SMILE. Parenting is hard, not to mention when you’re on extra high alert all the time, and therefore a little extra sensitive with a special needs or differently abled child. So, approaching me with kindness is huge. Then, ask whatever is on your mind. I have so much appreciation for anyone who wants to start this conversation and to learn more about my son. I would much rather take as much time as is needed to have a conversation, than to have negative encounters where my son is treated badly.”
I couldn’t have summarized this any better. Junior’s mom is raising two children and trying to navigate her way through learning about autism herself.
“We are all unique, amazing, and interesting. Some of us take a little extra patience and digging deeper, but trust me when I say how special it is when a neurodivergent person lets you into their world. Please remember that we are all human, that we all have feelings, and hearts that can easily be broken. No one should be treated negatively for a physical or mental difference, and rather should be embraced and appreciated. All of us learn better and do better when we associate ourselves with people who are different from us.“
What you may not realize is that beyond everyone else navigating how to be inclusive and teach kindness, their parents had to learn from scratch.
Junior’s mom is on a journey and said, “I wish I had known to care less about meeting milestones back then. I didn’t know better than to compare my son to other children the same age, and only stressed myself out about him not reaching some social, verbal, or other developmental milestones ‘on time.’”
Grace’s mom just had that gut feeling and states, “I wish I had pushed harder to get her a diagnosis much earlier. In my mom gut, I knew much earlier and early intervention is so critical.” Just like no two children are alike, neither are any two parenting journeys.
To feel a little more informed on how to approach parents who fear asking questions or feeling nosy, a great way to learn is to approach with a childlike mind. Junior’s mom states, “My son thrives outdoors and with physical activity. The beach and pool are especially important right now. He loves to run, play, swing. He can be approached with a hello and a smile. If you have a toy to share, all the better. It might take a while to get in his rhythm, but making him smile and laugh makes it completely worth the effort.”
Again, differences. For Grace, the best way to play is to not try to make her to play with age-appropriate toys or focus on what other children her age are able to do. “I focus on building her skills by fostering her interests. We do math as we cook together. We read using space books.” As well, yes we are building the bridge for kindness and inclusion, but we also need to realize the parents are human and navigating this as well. Grace’s mom just wishes that friends and family would check in once in a while. “It’s expensive, hard, and so overwhelming. The hardest part for me was when Grace stopped being invited for play dates, parties, et cetera. I felt so alone until I found my new tribe.“
So, the next time you step outside your solid four walls and outside the box of a home, spread the kindness. Spread the love. Reap the benefits of working your smile, opening up a conversation and possibly making a new best friend in a parent raising a beautifully one-of-a-kind child. You are raising your kids. They are raising theirs. Friendship is the gift that keeps giving far more than judgements and side eyes.
For more information on autism, check out the Community Care Plan website. You’ll find diagnosis and screening resources straight from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control all in one spot.
I’ll end with this – a beautiful piece of social media that Junior’s mom shared that will best explain the photo of the bag of toys and skateboard:
“Hey parents, I have a small challenge for you. Here’s what I did today and plan to do from now on when taking my kids to playgrounds/parks/the beach. After recently sorting out the “keeper” toys from the old, no-more-exciting toys that would be sent to Goodwill, (necessary to restore a little of my sanity), I realized that some of the Goodwill stash were great toys that even if my kids were bored of them, another child might find exciting and fun to play with.
Some of you may remember my post from last week where I mentioned a situation between my son and a couple of other children with their toys (and their parents). Anyway, I decided to fill a bag with toys that would stay in our trunk and come along with us when we go to the playground. We went to the park today, and within a minute of unloading the bag of toys on the ground, two little sisters came over to me (their mom calling to them “yes, go ahead, remember how to ask!”) and asked if they can please play with our toys.
You wouldn’t have met a happier human at that moment, I said “Yes, of course you can! This is exactly why we brought them.” Boom. Kids came over to play; my boys were suddenly seeing their toys in a new light and introducing the toys to their new friends. An ice breaker between kids and ice breaker between moms! The other mama came closer to sit on a nearby bench and she told me how sweet it was to set a great example of sharing. The kids played for a long time, and mamas chatted; it was a beautiful afternoon.
Listen you guys: Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that literally cost nothing – that can make all the difference, and my hope is, cause a ripple effect. Don’t worry about changing the world. Just think about ways you can change YOUR world, the one right around you, in your day-to-day life. Parents of young children, I challenge you to do this. Maybe involve your kids and see what toys they’d be happy to share, even ones that they wouldn’t mind if they were to find a new good home.
Just from this small event, I realized today that it’s up to me to set the example of change and action that I expect and would appreciate from other people. We often wait for ‘others’ to act. Whether it’s in big world-changing ways, or smaller, personal ones. Nah. You want something to change, YOU do it.”