Take a breather—and let them do it
We stepped in the door, and the man with a clipboard looked at me and handed me a form to sign. Of course I reached for it—I couldn’t help it. But then I faced my recently turned 18-year-old daughter with special needs and said, “You are a young adult now, so you have to sign this.” And I put my hands in my pockets.
The people at the next station in the camp check-in line did the same thing—they talked to me and not my daughter. I had to step behind her and say, “Please talk to her, not me.”
Then the same thing happened again at the next station.
It would have been so easy to simply deal with all the questions and forms myself. It would certainly be more efficient; as a Solo Mom, I am really good at getting things done. But it would also keep my daughter from stepping into her own adulthood and keep me right in her way.
Getting out of our kids’ way is a delicate dance while wearing combat boots. We usually do know best, but if we want our children, with and without special needs, to grow into capable, skilled, responsible, and independent adults, we sometimes have to get out of the way.
What I am learning as my kids cross the threshold into legal adulthood is that there are many more factors impeding their path than just me. It’s the server who asks me what my daughter wants to eat instead of her. It’s the people with clipboards who expect me to fill in the paperwork and not her. It’s the front-desk staff who look at me when they can’t understand my daughter’s request and don’t try to clear it up with her.
It took me a while to figure out that people are uncomfortable with people with disabilities. Let’s just say I am a slow learner.
Here’s another example: My daughter was 16 at the time and trying to check in at the local recreation center for a private swim lesson. All she needed to do was give the clerk her name, and the clerk would then give her a ticket to give to the swim teacher. She knew exactly what to do.
I was there, but I stood about eight feet behind her, chatting with one of the recreation therapists. I could hear that the clerk didn’t understand my daughter’s pronunciation of her last name, but I planned to wait and let her try to get this information across. Before my daughter could use one of the strategies I had taught her (write it down or spell it aloud), the therapist jumped in and told the clerk her name.
In the rush to prevent anyone from getting uncomfortable, no one had the opportunity to learn how to navigate this complex communication. Everyone learned something, though:
- My daughter learned she was not capable of making herself understood.
- The clerk learned she didn’t have to figure out how to understand people; someone would do it for her.
- The therapist learned that she needed to speak for anyone with a disability so no one would ever feel awkward.
- And me, I learned that I needed to get out of my girl’s way and push a few other people out along the way.
I was able to try this strategy when the camp people kept talking to me and not to my daughter. In the moment, I did three things right. First, I talked to my daughter and said that these are things you have to do now that you are a young adult and to please ask if you have any questions. Second, I stepped away from the desk and stood behind her. If the desk people talked to me, I would say, “Please talk to her; this is her check-in, not mine.” Third, I smiled and kept a light tone. Yes, I wanted people to be comfortable, but I also wanted them to think about their actions. I decided a little humor, some compliments, and a friendly smile would work best.
One of my sons told me that when I try to jump in and do something “for” him, he feels like I am telling him that I don’t think he can do it himself, which I thought was a great bit of feedback.
Keeping that in mind, I let my daughter take the lead in planning her 18th birthday party. Together we settled on a plan for a grown-up dinner party. We wrote a small guest list, and a couple of weeks before the party, she started inviting almost everyone she knew. She told me that several more girls were coming, but she didn’t tell me that several more than that might be coming, too. And they did. And my girl also invited their moms. And they came, as well.
As guests kept showing up, I worried that we might not have enough food or chairs or glasses, but it all worked out. I got out of her way, and she planned a party—her party.
After the kitchen was cleaned and the presents were unwrapped, we talked about the few tweaks she could make for things to go a little smoother next time. I am sure you can see that by my getting out of her way, she got to learn from her mistakes. She also got to “own” the success of a great dinner party.
I also take this approach when I am talking to other people with special needs. I talk to the person first. I wait and see if he or she needs more time to respond, giving the person the opportunity to speak before I move ahead with the conversation. I hand the person the glass or the clipboard first and assume he or she is competent. And if this person’I also take this approach when I am talking to other people with special needs. I talk to the person first. I wait and see if he or she needs more time to respond, giving the person the opportunity to speak before I move ahead with the conversation. I hand the person the glass or the clipboard first and assume he or she is competent. And if the person’s Solo Mom jumps in, I smile and nod and turn back to the person with special needs and give him or her the dignity to be in charge of his or her own life.
Are you with me?
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
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