Some time ago I was reading an article by a parent who was commenting on her surprise that her child was suddenly gaining a myriad of skills – seemingly out of the blue. This was not just happening in one area, but in multiple areas: her previously non-speaking child was using new words and in the correct social context, trying new foods, and also open to new sensory experiences.
What I have noticed over the years with H is that his progress is anything but even – especially if we look at it on a small-scale. There are days when it has definitely felt like the cliché two steps forward – one step back. (However, I suppose there is often truth or reality at the centre of a cliché – and a noticing of a pattern or a tendency – or it wouldn’t be a cliché in the first place.)
It can be difficult to see those steps backward – but what I have learned is that the way to deal with this is to focus on the big picture with my child’s development. Here is the guiding question I try to ask: When considering the big picture (an image of your child’s development over time) is the trajectory of progress positive? If so… the little day-to-day blips, hills, and valleys are likely not of major consequence in terms of development.
When H was first identified as being Autistic, it was reinforced for us by some very wise professionals that this was a life-time journey: that parenting a child with autism/Autistic Child was a marathon and not a sprint – and we have tried to operate accordingly. In retrospect this has been useful advise and we have held it to some extent as a guiding principle. Our child is developing differently than other children – at a different rate that is not necessarily attached or correlated to the number of wax candles on his birthday cake.
There is another element that I have noticed with this, which bears consideration, and that is that my child, and others on the Autism spectrum, find comfort in sameness and predictability. The world can come at H unevenly and his response can seem uneven as well. I can understand his resistance to change and his uneasiness with new and different. Of course we would be doing a disservice to H if we allowed him to settle forever in this zone of comfort – never extending the boundaries. The stretch to new skills and experiences and discoveries – that is how progress is made. However, it is critical to recognize that this resistance serves a functional purpose and to honour the message that is being given.
My child needs time to settle into his intense interests to recharge. He needs time to focus on the things that give him pleasure so that he has the resiliency to tackle the daily aspects of his world that can be difficult for him. He needs to soak and relax in the familiar feel of his Lego, his favourite computer game, or his current intense conversational topic of interest so that he maintains his sense of self and is able to feel that he is honoured by himself and others for just being who he is in the moment.
And then… and bear with me please as I try to weave this together and bring us all full circle… it must again be considered that H and others like him are working doubly hard to make their way. So what I have noticed with H is that sometimes what might appear to be a step back is actually a retreat to the familiar: a metaphorical dipping into the familiar of the Lego bin where the world is predictable, the pieces fit in a pattern and the rules and roles are known. A behaviour, that we thought we had left behind, might recur because it is functioning as a safety net: it is familiar, known, and predictable – even if it may not be preferable, or particularly rewarding, or useful.
Along with all of this resistance to change and a tendency to cling to the familiar, is the developmental consolidation that happens after periods of great growth and development. Sometimes I have noticed that H may seem like his development has come to a halt – or flattened, but that is not the case. When he has gone through a time of rapid and intense development, he levels out as he is developing proficiency with his new skills. I think parents need to hear this – and teachers too.
I have noticed with H (and other children on the Autism spectrum) that development occurs in stages and steps (like it does for all of us). It is a cycle of a creative period of noticeable growth – the attainment or acquisition of skill or knowledge, often followed by a period of consolidation – during which the skills or knowledge is absorbed, practiced, generalized to new situations, and then added to the repertoire of skills… and then made one’s own.
In optimum circumstances there is a progressive forward motion to these cycles… but I have also observed that for my child multiple cycles seem to exist in many different areas across domains and that they may be cycling at different rates. There are areas where my son is much more advanced than his neurotypical or non Autistic peers, and there are areas where he is most definitely lacking the expected sophistication for a child of his age. Regardless, he still needs to follow the developmental steps for the attainment or acquisition of skill or knowledge, and we are learning (still) to be aware of the space, pace, and place of the unique developmental needs of our child.
I think it is impossible to know just how far my child, or any child, will go with his development. We cannot always predict the future by where we are this very moment, but we can have a certain faith in our children and in our interactions with those who are struggling that the possibilities for growth are amazing. For our children who are struggling with social learning, self-regulation, and countless other challenges as they navigate their way through life, it is good for us to be reminded that those steps forward, even when they are halted, tentative, or almost imperceptible – can take our kids a very long way.
30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.
© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2012)