By Jon Hagan
Author and Special Education teacher Jon Hagan speaks to parents coping with the identification of child mental disability.
Ability. Disability. Abilities. Disabilities. We all use these words. With our children, we do what ever we can to use words that describe abilities: “My child can eat, wash, walk, talk, play, read, print, do math, play sports, play music and have friends as well as or better than children the same age”. What happens when others begin to describe your child with the word “disability”? Here in Ontario, Canada these “others” will often be from the medical, educational and legal institutions of the province.
Those families that know this labelling also know the immediate hurt they felt. Words can be so hurtful, particularly when they are put in print next to your child’s name. How these words are delivered can be even more hurtful.
As a special education and classroom teacher over these past 21 years, I’ve learned so much from the families of my students and of course the students themselves. A mother recognizes this baby she is holding is processing sensory information in a different way. That perception is usually the first clue that with this child, the journey will be different than expected.
For these parents, as their child grows and moves through the stages of human development, each stage brings reminders of their child’s progress compared to the progress of others of the same age. What I think becomes key is how do family members relate to this child. Are they filled with worry and anxiety? Or are they filled with wonder and purpose? Those who actively pay attention to their child will communicate purpose and wonder. They will learn from their child to be the parent their child needs. They will open up positive ways of communicating.
Courage, determination, perseverance, humour and joyfulness are qualities I have found in those families that thrive with children learning differently. These parents have learned these positive qualities as they care for their child who is learning differently. They converse with the “experts” gathering information from doctors, ministers, other families, educators and internet sources; always selecting out the information relevant to their child. This information selection process is most important. Who are the experts that we can trust? What are the technologies and the tools that will best support our child in our family? Parents ask these questions and then confer with their support groups: trusted family and friends. While they do this, parents need to remind themselves, that they are their child’s most powerful teachers.
Here is an example of a family who actively paid attention to what their child was doing and then set up a communication system:
This family noticed that their son loved chapatti dough. He would scoop small amounts up and make tiny balls from his mother’s dough, then roll the balls out into dough sausages that he would form into tiny, tiny perfect letters. From these letters he would make the words of songs. Each family member joined him in this activity, each in their own way communicating as they played with the child. The chapatti dough language transferred to school with sticky tack letters that other students would sing along with the child. This shared activity led to other shared group activities at home and school.
In this article, I present “learning differently” as opposed to “having a disability”. When we focus on learning differently, we take ownership of doing whatever we can to establish relationships with children learning differently. Rather than attending to “what my child can not do”, we build on what “my child is doing” and what they will be ready to learn to do with specific supports. We learn to be the parent our child needs, no matter what their medical diagnosis: autism, global delay, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, etc.
Read Ian Brown’s award winning book about his son Walker “The Boy in the Moon”. This Globe and Mail journalist writes with the powerful and authentic voice only a parent can use.