I can still remember very clearly the exact moment my mother told my granny that she was expecting my little brother. There’s a 12-year age gap between me and my youngest brother who was a very much welcomed if surprise addition to the family. My granny was slightly shocked by the news that my positively aged (in her view) mother was going to have another baby. She glanced surreptitiously at me and then silently mouthed to my mother “Do the children know?” in a hilarious stage whisper. We did, as it happened, and so all was fine.
I think it’s easy to assume that we can have conversations in the presence of children without them understanding what is being said.
Children, even young ones, can often pick up a lot more information than we give them credit for, even if they just get a sense of the tone or the feelings being expressed rather than the content.
When we got invited to go to our first appointment for Edward to be assessed for autism Nick and I were quite nervous about what the experience would be like for Edward who was 7 or 8 at the time.
I had tried not to talk about Edward negatively in front of him as I didn’t want his sense of who he was to be damaged by overhearing me airing my concerns about him to family and friends.
I didn’t want to engage in whispered conversations about my son in his presence without including him in the conversation. All those questions that I had “What do you think? Do you think he might be autistic? He’s really struggling to make friends? He gets so angry sometimes…. this is really hard work.” were not for his ears.
I attempted to confine all of these types of conversations with Nick and close friends to times when Edward was not present.
I didn’t want him to pick up any vibes that he was in some way broken or in any way less.
So, when faced with an assessment appointment I was seriously worried about having to talk about the things which Edward struggled with openly in front of him. I decided the only way to make this work was to be as open as possible about the appointment with Edward beforehand.
We explained that we had noticed that he was finding it hard to make friends with other children and that we were going to see a doctor and psychologist to see if they had any ideas about why this was the case and how we could help him to make better friends in the future. We said that they were probably going to ask lots and lots of questions about things he found difficult and hopefully they would also be interested in things he found easy.
In the end I needn’t have worried because the staff asked Edward questions directly. Another appointment was arranged for just Nick and I and at this appointment we were able to be more explicit about the difficulties Edward was having and the things we were finding challenging in terms of parenting him.
I think if professionals care about how parents nurture their children they need to think carefully about the types of conversations they have with parents in front of the child in question.
I wonder how easy it would be to grow up feeling good about who you are if you have heard your parents talk about you in worried, concerned or frustrated tones throughout your childhood?
I’m not advocating that we don’t talk about the things our children struggle with; far from it. I think by having open honest conversations directly with our children we let them know we understand, that we are interested in them and hopefully we can work to find solutions with them. By having private conversations about any struggles we may be having parenting them we can get the support we need.
The language we use to describe their difficulties is really important too. I recall being in a situation with Edward when someone we know well asked if I’d read an article about a young man who also suffered from autism. The person asked in good faith – they simply thought I would be interested in the article.
How do you think it feels to be a 10-year-old child and hear someone you know well describe someone with the same diagnosis as you as an autism sufferer?
Maybe you would think you had a horrible illness or disease.
Maybe you would take on board that being autistic was an entirely bad thing, maybe even that you were a bad person.
Maybe you would start to wish that you could be cured.
Is it the kind of language that would help you to grow up feeling ok about who you were?
Language matters and the language our children hear us using about them and their identity is crucial to how they view and value themselves as they grow up.
Now that Edward is a teenager I’m really pleased that he is comfortable being open about being autistic.
Of course none of us can claim to have completely mastered the skill of saying exactly the right thing at the right time all the time – however thinking things through and pondering the consequences our words may have surely gives us a better chance of making fewer mistakes when it comes to how we communicate in front of our children.
As you may have noticed it’s autism awareness week this week – I hope that if you follow my blog it has helped play a small part in developing your own understanding and awareness about autism.
Thank you for taking the time to find out more,