Parenting

What My Special Needs Son Taught Me About Underestimating Our Kids

President Obama prepares to greet members of Congress at State of the Union address Jan. 20, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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Lately, our three-year-old son, James has taken to playing near us.

It’s a charming practice. It involves hauling every toy of the moment into the room where we are, plunking them onto the floor, and playing with them near one or both of us. If we move, he moves. And, the toys move along with him. Sometimes, it’s a caravan of Thomas the Train cars, Matchbox cars, and imaginary play toys like the “ice cream cone” we made for him using two colors of Play-Doh and a paper towel roll. Other times, it’s his favorite blanket and his iPad. On the surface, there are times when it seems that he doesn’t care what goes on around him, just so long as there is a parent or two in the room.

Often, we do this waltz where one of us opts to stay in a room with him, while the other tackles cleaning or cooking, and we switch off. But, the other day, we needed all hands on deck in the kitchen. So, there we were with our adorable walking toy box shadow, who joined us and set up shop in the middle of the kitchen floor.

My task was chopping onions and, not wanting to pain my eyes, I dug out our slicer. You probably know it: it’s one of those fantastic machines with a lid that opens and closes. It chops food into small, neat, even cubes that rest in a container below. It slices, it dices, and importantly, it minimizes contact with onions: winning.

Thinking nothing of it, I hacked up some onion and threw it on the slicer, closed the lid and felt the satisfying thwump! as it cubed the onion, which fell into a pile.

James looked up.

“Close it,” he said to me excitedly. “Close it.”

“Do you want to close it?” I asked.

“I wanna close it,” he answered, and stood up. He walked over and climbed onto his wooden blue step stool.

Excitedly, I tossed some onion on the chopper and said, “Go ahead, close it. Use both hands!”

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He did it to a “T” and my husband and I were beyond excited. We were elated. It was our very own chop-o-matic breakthrough with our son.

Let me backtrack a little and explain this chopping joyfest. Nearly a year and a half ago, James was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. We were prepared for challenges (to an extent) when we referred him to the local Early Intervention program after his second birthday with speech delays. But, in the following months, we learned that his needs went beyond that.

I wish I could say that we have mastered our special needs parenting skills in the months since. But, that would be a lie. A total lie. A big, fat lie. Because while we try to make time for learning and for fun, recruiting him for tasks has never been at the forefront of our minds.

And so, the chopper incident serves as this stark reminder that I underestimate my son. All. The. Time. It is proof that his talents and capabilities are aching to be noticed, and I really need to take heed. I’m learning. Or, more, my son is reminding me that I’m learning. And he’s quite the teacher!

There was the morning I asked him if he wanted to put honey on his waffle, thinking he wouldn’t. Long story short: we’ve been drizzling honey on his breakfast together for quite some time now.

Another time, I gave him a marker and said “let’s spell your name,” thinking I’d teach him. He matter-of-factly spelled it for me, drew it with my help steadying his hand, and read it back to me.

More recently, I’ve begun to let him pick out his lunch using an either/or system. While he sometimes wants a lunchbox full of ice cream (and who wouldn’t? It’s summer!), more often than not, he speaks up for the fruit or veggie or snack he prefers. The common denominator for all of these things is that rather than do it myself, I make it a point to see if James would like to try. More often than not, the roundabout answer is “Yes, mom, I would like to try. I’ve been waiting for you to ask.”

All told, we ended up chopping up every onion in the house, five peppers, and whatever else we could find in the fridge. James was so proud of his work and we’re still enjoying the fruits of our labor in our omelets and salads. And as for me, I’m grateful for his patience while his silly mother bumbles and fumbles along and sometimes forgets that the most important thing is the easiest to forget: to ask.

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