My son has autism and other special needs, but this year we're prioritizing his happiness
Lynn Dixon is confident in her son's natural ingenuity and passion for "reinventing his own universe" (this is not him, by the way) but also wants to help him to communicate and play like other 7-year-olds. She talks about a special-needs parent's dilemma: How much to help, and at what cost?
Every fall my husband and I have the same conversation: What will we prioritize this school year for our 7-year-old son with special needs?
Which therapies will we add or cut? How much extra tutoring will we do? Which of his many challenges will we tackle first and which will we put on the back burner for another year?
My son’s primary diagnosis is Autism Spectrum Disorder, but he also has a learning disability, fine and gross motor delays, sensory processing challenges and, to top it off, a severe stutter. As well as academic tutoring, he’s done speech therapy, occupational therapy and behavioral therapy.
It hits me on the first day of school how behind he is. Other kids arrive on their bikes (my son’s still on training wheels). One of his classmates is carting around a full-length novel (we’re still slogging through BOB books). His peers smile and greet one another after a summer off (my son hides behind my back).
I recalculate how many more therapy sessions we can squeeze into our schedule: If we went down to once a week with his reading tutor, we could go up on speech therapy. But we still have social skills group to fit in. And shouldn’t we add in swim lessons? All this therapy will be moot if he drowns.
It’s easy to convince myself that all these “extras” are in my son’s best interest. He does benefit from his therapies and, by and large, doesn’t mind them. Looking ahead, I know he will need all these skills if he’s ever going to live independently, find employment and generally succeed in life.
Lately though I’ve been wondering about the cost of over-focusing on the future, both to my son’s self-esteem and his overall well-being. What message might we be inadvertently be sending him when we insist he work twice as hard as his peers: You’re behind, you’re not good enough, we don’t believe in you.
We live in an age when technology can perform many of the communication tasks my son finds so difficult. Computers can read to him, write for him and even speak for him. What no computer can do – now or ever – is make him happy.
My son is happiest at home where he can reinvent his universe. He engineers impenetrable forts out of couch cushions, designs booby traps with ropes and pulleys and plows up the backyard to install a makeshift sewer system.
These projects require me to step back and observe my son’s natural ingenuity. When left to his own devices, he is able to navigate through problems in his own unique and intelligent way.
It occurs to me that happiness is its own kind of therapy. When we’re happy, we’re more able to learn, take risks and live up to our potential.
The thought of loosening up on expectations for our son scares me. If we stop pushing him academically will he be able to stay in a mainstream classroom, attend his neighborhood school, get into college? If he doesn’t get the right social and behavioral interventions, will he be able to make friends, marry and achieve his dreams?
Or will less time spent on formalized learning free him up to discover his innate abilities and inner resources?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that any one of us could drown tomorrow, with or without swim lessons. All we’re guaranteed is the present moment. If we’re continually sacrificing the present for the future, really, what’s the point?
We won’t give up on therapy and tutoring all together. We’ll focus on a few skills and trust that the rest will come.
Or they won’t.
Either way, our son will be happy.
Lynn Dixon lives in Ballard with her husband and two engaging boys. Her family’s favorite place is anywhere they can spread out, make noise and whack things. She believes there’s no such thing as typical, that every child is gifted and our vulnerabilities are our biggest asset because they connect us to one another.
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