When our babies are first put into our arms, we feel a deep responsibility for their safety and for meeting their every need to thrive.
As they grow, we get excited with each milestone: They are picking up cereal—and they are getting it in their mouths! They are sitting up!
When our children are developmentally delayed, we parents have to help them with each emerging skill longer than we would help our neurotypical kids. Maybe a child needs physical therapy to strengthen core muscles before he is able to sit up. Maybe the motor planning needed to crawl takes months of practice before we see any results. Or maybe hours of practice are needed for one new verbalization.
As my son who lives with autism, Jake grew and developed at his own pace, and I grew comfortable doing more for him than I did for my older neurotypical son, Frankie, when he was the same age. As soon as Frankie learned to tie his shoes, I let him take over that task. At a typical age, he also learned to cut his own food and make a meal for himself, and he understood the concept of money and purchases. I eagerly facilitated his independence in these areas as well.
At 19, Jake can tie his shoes, cut his own food, work the microwave, and make small purchases. But do I always let him?
Over the last few years, I have been trying to back off as much as possible. I backed off when Jake learned to navigate the playground on his own. And I backed off when he could dress himself. On the other hand, I found that meal-making goes faster and easier if I do it without Jake. But how does Jake benefit from my doing it for him? I realize that I need to back off from this, too, so Jake will become more independent. So, what’s the holdup?
Breaking my routine—and the assumption that faster, easier, cleaner is better—is an important step toward my son’s success as an adult. Involving him in day-to-day household management gives him a lot of confidence and a huge smile of pride. If it takes longer for him to complete a new task or the kitchen gets messier than usual during meal preparation—so be it! I just won’t let my child’s skills regress because doing the task myself is faster, easier, and cleaner.
I’ve learned a few other things, too. For example, having a young child on the spectrum necessitates more time in our daily schedule for teaching him how to do things like work zippers and buttons.
As your child ages, let him or her walk ahead of you to the bus stop as long as it’s safe. And find chores around the house that will build your child’s confidence. The job may not be done well today, but one day it will.
In a restaurant, ordering a beverage or meal is a good first step toward self-determination—as long as you have your child’s back, of course. And be sure to talk to your child’s educational team about the skills he or she is showing at school. I was so surprised to learn what Jake was doing at school that he would not do at home!
When Jake was little, I used to say that my job, as mom, was to make sure that he is always living his life to the best of his ability. The best way to do this, I’ve learned, is to back off and let Jake learn to do for himself. But now that I think about it, don’t we all learn better this way?
Sun contributor Jen Nardo is a parent mentor and long-time Autism Delaware™ volunteer as well as a dedicated member of Autism Delaware’s newsletter committee.
This text was edited for consistency of language and message and appears in the January–March 2018 issue of the Autism Delaware quarterly newsletter, The Sun.