Every expecting couple dreams of what their child will be like. Maybe she will be athletic. Maybe he will be intellectual. Whose eyes or hair will he have? What will she be when she grows up? And then we discover that the child we have is nothing like the child we expected. Sometimes this is a small adjustment and sometimes it’s a larger shock.
Experiencing the Feelings Separate From Your Child
Think back to your childhood. Was there a particular toy you longed for but never had? An expensive Lego set your family couldn’t afford? A trampoline when you had no backyard? An American Girl Doll?
Robin finally got an American Girl Doll as an adult and discovered that she had never stopped longing for that perfect doll, even though her mom had given me plenty of other lovely handmade dolls or less expensive smaller dolls over the years. Her head knew that her mom loved her and put hours of work into sewing dresses that looked like the American Girl dresses for her not-American-Girl dolls. Her head knew that her dolls had plenty of good qualities. But when she finally got an American Girl doll as an adult, it sits in a place of honor in our room while her other dolls are safely packed up with her keepsakes, to come out when we have enough space for lower priority treasures.
Isn’t it a good thing that her childhood doll doesn’t have feelings to be hurt?
The Difficult Thing About Human Hearts
We don’t choose how we feel about things. We can’t choose to feel grateful or sorry or excited. We just feel the way we feel.
But we can choose how we fill our minds and hearts, the materials from which our feelings come. We don’t think Robin would have so desperately wanted that American Girl doll if she hadn’t spent hours reading the catalogs and dreaming about the doll. She wouldn’t have known just how gloriously different the dolls were, their lovely hair and soft bodies and real-looking faces, if she hadn’t played with a little girl who actually had an American Girl doll.
In the same way, if you fill your heart and mind with images of the neurotypical child you dream of having, spend hours discussing all the neurotypical things you want your child to do, surround yourself with other people with neurotypical children, it can be very difficult to let go of that dream neurotypical child to love the child you have.
Because we always dreamed of having quirky, creative children who marched to their own drum, we never really understood the struggle that other parents go through trying to accept their child for who he or she is…until Robin got that dream doll. It turned out that after all these years, she’d never really loved the doll she had, she still yearned for the perfect doll, the doll who looked just like all the nice dolls. Tim found it fascinating to watch Robin love a mere doll so much, a real demonstration of what longing for something does to someone.
Before that experience, we would tell parents to focus on the things they love about their child, all the good they see. And parents would say, “Yes, but…” Their hearts just wouldn’t connect. After the experience with the dolls, we have different recommendations.
How to Let Go of the Dream Child and Love Your Real Child For Who They Are
Fill your mind with the stories of delightful, wonderful, creative, happy and beloved people who are like your child. With few exceptions, regardless of how your child is affected, there are people out there who are living life similarly affected.
The neurodiversity community is a great place to start for most people. If you’re on social media, make an ask on your preferred app using the hashtag #actuallyautistic.
Pay attention to your child’s special interests and recognize that there are plenty of adults with those same special interests or comparable ones.
Does your child collect something odd. Do a Google search for “weird museums” and realize that your child is no more strange than legit museums out there. Is your child fascinated by trains? Visit a garden railroad club or model train expo. Read about the Tech Model Railroad Club
Find other parents who are honest. The book Neurotribes starts with a child who is obsessed with Starbucks straws.
Our son’s unwavering interest in talking about ballet makes him a bit of a bore among passionate sports enthustiasts but he fits right in with the culture-crowd. The fact that he doesn’t understand that other people aren’t fascinated about ballet doesn’t matter when he’s with people who are as completely immersed in ballet like he is.
Visualize your child in the future they may have rather than the future you may have wanted for them.
If you keep thinking of what might have been, you’ll only make yourself miserable and set your child up for failure.
We know a couple who are planning their main house to be a group home and building a garden cottage out back for them to live in when they are aging. They are imaging their son living with several other adults with similar needs and a caregiver or two and all the pleasant experiences he’ll have.
Imagine being proud of your child’s passion for a particular subject and telling your friends at the senior center (or on a cruise or however you dream of your life going) all about your child.
We’ve never known if our son would live completely independently. At this point, it’s obvious that by adulthood he’ll be able to care for his ADLs (activities of daily living) very well. But we’re not sure if he’ll earn a living. What we do know is that he’s a passionate ballet dancer and we can imagine a future of him dancing and teaching ballet. We don’t know if he’ll be able to make a living at it. We don’t know if he’ll be able to compete with neurotypical dancers in the complex world of personality and politics to land roles. We don’t know if he’ll be able to afford his medical and mental health care without our help. But he can be very happy in the world of ballet, regardless of whether he’s successful by the world’s standards.
What interests and hobbies does your child have where they can find their version of happiness? Is it computers? Music? Martial arts? Archery? If you don’t know what that might be, read the article on Finding and Nurturing Your Child’s Special Interests
Remember that there’s nothing wrong about a loving parent bragging about their children. You’re just doing it in a healthy way. Instead of bragging about awards and achievements (which is not a good parenting technique and contributes to a fixed mindset rather than growth mindset), brag about your child’s persistence, creativity, and enthusiasm.
We’ve discovered that just saying that a child loves something makes other people take notice. “Charlie just loves climbing trees!” or “Eleanor loves taking care of the chickens!” imply that Charlie is adventurous and Eleanor is nurturing. In fact, Charlie is a fairly conscientious child who quit gymnastics because it was too scary and Eleanor only recently stopped climbing into the nest boxes, spraying the chickens with water, and otherwise causing chaos.
Tell funny stories that show your child in a positive light and laugh about it. One of our favorite family stories is about the time Eleanor cut open a large teddy bear, ripped out the guts, and climbed inside.
Every time we tell the story, we laugh until we have tears in our eyes and people can easily see that we appreciate her creativity rather than bemoan her destructive tendencies.
That first time it happened, we had no idea what she’d done so when she walked into the living room wearing the bear, it was the creepiest thing we’d ever seen in our lives. Why are walking teddy bears so creepy?
It was such a rousing success that it became our favorite entertainment for awhile. We’d get friends or family settled in the living room and then in would walk the teddy bear. One time, we put a friend’s daughter inside the teddy bear and propped her up on the sofa. Our friend walked into the room and when the teddy bear hopped off the sofa, our friend shrieked. It was hilarious!
Create an interesting environment where your child thrives. Our kids love playing in the mud so we created a mudpit in the backyard. We made a low wall with old tires and then filled it with dirt. We have a zipline. And a swingset. And a chicken coop full of very patient chickens. And a garden where the kids are allowed to pick and eat things once they’ve been instructed on how to not hurt the plants. And if they do hurt the plants, no great loss. We planted it for them.
Other kids have a blast playing in our yard, which makes my kids more popular than they would be otherwise, and it gives us a level of enjoyment of the kids that we wouldn’t have if we were expecting them to behave a certain way. Yes, Tim is still annoyed about that time a group of kids had a tomato fight. But these things happen and they learned from it. We’re just grateful it wasn’t eggs!
Make small changes that help you see your child in a positive light.
We have cute pajamas for my kids. Most of the time they wear whatever they want and now that Charlie is 11, he usually wears sweats to bed. But the cute pajamas got us a lot further towards liking them when they were going through difficult stages. The kids will intentionally put on the cute pajamas when they know it’s been a hard day and they want to make things better.
Eleanor generally does not like dresses and Charlie despises dressing up, but we’ve made it de rigueur to dress up to go to places like the symphony, ballet, or theater. Because they enjoy these outings, they tolerate dressing up. Find something your child enjoys and see if they’ll let you put in a little something for you.
Don’t spend too much time with neurotypical families who have different goals and values than your own. You’ll just end up feeling bad about yourself.
We left a church group where the kids were generally liked but often came home in tears and we couldn’t keep up with the endless amounts of normal that we will never achieve. Travel is fraught with potential disaster, restaurants require strategic planning, and playing on competitive sports teams is just not in my children’s futures. Even the ideas above weren’t enough to keep me from feeling down. We’re happier in a group without other school-age kids.
Find people just as quirky and creative as your family.
This may mean spending more time at home. That’s okay so long as you’re also getting out enough to meet your socialization needs.
Find social groups with a purpose. If you are all learning a new skill or volunteering together, there’s less opportunity for comparison and you’re more likely to find families who accept your family how you are.
It may mean joining clubs or academies related to your child’s special interest. You’ll survive. We have spent hours sewing sparkly things onto the front of ballet costumes, videoed our daughter grappling with numerous other small humans, and stood with groups of train-chasers when a particularly nice engine was coming through our part of the country. We’ve met a lot of really interesting people who think my kids are wonderful. It helps us see them as wonderful, too.
Help out other neurodiverse families and share this
While Robin is a board certified family physician with a decade of private practice behind her (and Tim learned a lot at the dinner table), nothing on this website is medical advice. Anything with her viewpoint on this website is written from her perspective as the wife and mother of a neurodiverse family.