Parents of neurodivergent or disabled children sometimes struggle with honoring who their child is while teaching them the skills required to live independently.
This begs the question: Is teaching my disabled child to be more neurotypical a disservice to my child?
I first started thinking about this when I struggled with what to do with my son’s sensory objections. He dislikes the texture of playdough. Just the sight of it makes him have a strong physical reaction.
Disappointed (since this is something most children play with), I tried to slowly desensitize* him to it, only to find myself further discouraged. I then asked: How necessary is it for him to play with playdough at all?
I thought long-term about what textures resemble playdough and, other than baker’s dough, I couldn’t see a reason to keep exposing him to it. His strong physical reaction was upsetting to both of us, so I stopped it.
I often wonder:
- Should I mould my son?
- How far should I go to challenge him?
- Or should I accept him as he is?
* “Desensitizing” a child, a common therapy practice dating back to the late 1800s, is no longer considered a healthy, safe, or moral practice. Many self-advocates in the neurodivergent and disabled communities consider this practice abuse.
What the research shows about learning
As described by Jolles and Crone (2012), brain research showed that the “human brain is highly plastic and adapts quickly to new experiences.” Their review of “healthy children”** and those with “cognitive or attentional impairments”** explained that children can improve their skills due to explicit training.
If children are exposed to new ideas, they learn.
We know through educational leader David Elkind in his article, “The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally,” that the purpose of child’s play is to “create new learning experiences” to enable children “to acquire social, emotional, and intellectual skills they could not acquire in any other way.”
A child can practice fine and gross motor skills through non-threatening and fun play experiences, but if the child is gagging, is this fun for anyone? And, how much learning is truly happening?
In 2015, Thomas Armstrong wrote in his article “The Myth of the Normal Brain: Embracing Neurodiversity,” “There is no such standard for the human brain. Search as you might, there is no brain that has been pickled in a jar in the basement of the Smithsonian Museum or the National Institute of Health or elsewhere in the world that represents the standard to which all other human brains must be compared. Given that this is the case, how do we decide whether any individual human brain or mind is abnormal or normal?”
** The terms “healthy children” and “cognitive or attentional impairments” are ableist terms.
Why I’m conflicted
Corrective therapies have never felt right to me. I understand the purpose of therapy and value the work therapists do. My conflict is with the suggestion that my son isn’t good enough for the rest of the world; we must correct and change him so that he fits in.
There are so many things I love about my son:
- How he expresses excitement
- His delightful high-pitched voice
- His contagious laugh
- How he thoroughly enjoys flapping toys
- His innocent sense of humor
- His passion for doors, elevators, and owls
Which parts of him should I change so that he fits in? Why do I even need to?
Who are we pleasing when we remediate?
Our children deserve every possible chance to flourish. And they don’t have to thrive for others.
I don’t want my son to thrive for society so he’ll be accepted. I want him to thrive for himself, which means, as a parent, I accept him right where he is.
What I think
Exposure to new learning experiences is vital to a child’s development. A disabled child may not naturally choose to explore specific tasks as readily as other children might. They sometimes need the invitation to learn as facilitated by an adult.
Our children have the right to learn and be exposed to new experiences.
Finding other methods
I have learned to find other methods of building on the same skills as long as I’m clear on the goals.
For example, since my son has a strong physiological reaction to playdough, I researched the benefits of playing with playdough. I learned how it strengthens small fingers, wrists, and hands and improves eye-hand coordination. I learned how children build their imagination and work on communication skills.
I then asked myself how else I could work on strengthening my son’s hands and improving his eye-hand coordination. How else can I help him build his imagination and work on communication skills? There is no one answer to working on these skills. Playdough does not have to be the only solution.
There are many ways to read or write or draw or paint. Therein lies the beauty of homeschooling. It allows you to hone into the best way for your child —something schools don’t have the luxury to do.
Questions to ask yourself when deciding between remediating and allowing your child to be:
- What feels natural?
- What’s the most non-threatening way to go about building skills? Is it by going at a slower pace? Over an extended amount of time? In a natural setting?
I believe there needs to be a balance between working on skills and honing a child’s differences. I acknowledge the fine line between allowing a child to be who they are (and having others accept them) and guiding them so that they become more independent (but not because they’ll “fit in”).
I follow my child’s lead.
Most days, we’re dancing on a tightrope that sits neatly between building skills and accepting him right where he is. We move forward, pulling back to where he’s most comfortable. We move forward again, then pull back again to find that “just right” spot.
- Is Remediation in Your Home Education a Reflection of Your Child, or Internalized Ableism?
- Honing Passions: Using the Child’s “Fixation” as a Motivator for Learning
- What Classrooms Miss: The Benefits of Home Educating for Neurodivergent and Chronically Ill/Disabled Learners