When it comes to individuality, our culture is a mess of double-standards. On the one hand, we encourage individuality with slogans like “Just be yourself” and “stand out in a crowd” while on the other, we’re constantly telling our children to “try to fit in” or “not to make waves” or “don’t be such a baby”. While individuality is to be commended, it’s important to ensure that your children have an appropriate level of social acceptance.
Sometimes this means you will have to change your child’s behavior to attract less attention.
History is filled with stories of people who were individuals and who stood out from the crowd. These people made amazing contributions to our society but at the same time, most of them did not enjoy happy or peaceful lives. Many of these historical figures were punished for their individuality and some even died for their differences. The world of today isn’t quite so harsh but every now and then, our world bares its teeth and when it does, our kids need to be ready to “become invisible”.
When “Being Yourself” Causes Social Problems
For the most part, our children are too young to express the types of differences which caused problems for the historical figures I alluded to but regardless of this, their special-ism’s will almost certainly draw attention to them. Since most children with “invisible special needs” look the same as their peers, their differences are usually in the form of unusual behavior.
A Stuffed Toy Example
It is not at all uncommon for children on the autism spectrum to need to carry a familiar object, such as a stuffed animal or even a blanket when out shopping. This kind of behavior is cute when your child is little but by the time they get into their middle-school years, it can become problematic, especially if they bump into their school friends.
Now if this sort of thing happens to you, it’s tempting to try to give your child’s judgmental friends “a good talking to about respect and individuality”. After all, why should your child have to change simply to fit into the social norms of others? The problem of course is that regardless of what you say or do, there is always the other child’s parents to consider. You might well lecture the child on acceptance but almost as soon as you’re out of earshot, the other child’s parents will probably start up a conversation about “finding other friends”.
There’s just no winning in this kind of scenario. The best you can do is to prevent it from happening in the first place. If your child is too old to be taking a visible comforter shopping, then either give him an invisible one (such as something that remains in the pocket to be touched) or give them an age-appropriate toy, such as an ipod or hand-held game.
The correction described earlier works very well when it involves objects that your child is physically carrying but sometimes the differences are so ingrained that they become visible on their own. Examples of this include; public meltdowns, very visible stimming behaviors (such as rocking, fidgeting or humming), eating and dressing problems.
These behaviors will draw attention to your child and could result in bullying and exclusion by the other children. Clearly this is not right and it’s not your child’s fault that other kids are intolerant but I’ve found that it’s much easier to hide the behavior that attracts bullies than it is to get schools to identify and stop all bullying incidents.
One thing is very clear; you can’t simply stop this kind of behavior with a verbal request, You have to constantly monitor and correct your child until the desired behavioral change becomes “natural”.
A Food Example
For example, you may have a teenager who still forgets to eat with their knife and fork, who chews with his mouth open and who wipes his hands all over his clothing. While this behavior could be tolerated in the home, it would cause major issues if he were to have dinner with friends. In order to help him to correct his behavior, we need to make a point of ensuring that all meals are eaten properly and that good manners are shown all the time. This means that the wrong behavior must not be tolerated in the home but must be corrected at every opportunity. Furthermore, steps would need to be taken to reduce issues at school until the eating problem has been corrected. These steps might be to reduce the chance of him being served food which could become messy, perhaps by providing a packed lunch without sauces or mayonnaise. It could also mean forbidding your child to purchase “ice cream” at school.
A Dressing Example
The same technique applies to clothing. For example, if your child constantly fails to wear underwear to school (or wears their pajamas underneath their school uniform), then you need to make it part of your morning “pre-flight check”. It’s embarrassing and it’s “baby-ing” but if you aren’t persistent, you won’t get the unwanted behavior to change. As your child gets older, you’ll want to apply this same level of attention to other aspects of grooming including the use of deodorant, inappropriate attire and even “sloppy” dressing. It may seem picky but it could mean the difference between having friends or becoming a victim of bullying.
Encourage individuality but not at the expense of your child’s social interaction.