Your child has fallen off her bike and after the fall, her finger is sticking out at an odd angle. You take her to the hospital where the doctor shows you x-rays and tells you that the finger is broken and that she won’t be able to write for some time. Suddenly your partner speaks up telling everyone that he doesn’t believe that it’s broken and that your child needs to continue writing like everyone else in their class.
It’s clearly silly and extremely harmful to the child and to family relationships. In real life, this would never happen because the doctors would probably intervene and sanity would prevail.
Sadly though, this situation – when parents disagree – is extremely common when it comes to “invisible” conditions, such as Autism, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD and others.
Noticing the Dissimilarities
The problems usually start somewhere during infancy where one partner, usually the mother, notices a difference in the child. There are a few reasons why it’s usually the mother; In the early years, mothers spend significantly more time with their children than fathers. This is because many parts of the nurturing role, breastfeeding for example, can only be performed by mothers. The breadwinner role of fathers in modern society tends to eat into a father’s time with his children.
It’s not just about time spent, mothers at home tend to partake in gatherings of other mothers at parks, in playgroups, in playing areas at shopping centers and at preschool events. They get many more opportunities to see how their child interacts and plays with others – and they have more opportunities to compare developmental milestones. Mothers are far more likely to know whether their child is dissimilar to others of the same age.
A Simple Look at Genetics
Despite the crazy theories which abound regarding the origin of these invisible conditions; refrigerator mothering, vaccination, environmental toxins and more recently, circumcision, the majority of these differences are simply inherited. Often when talking to parents of newly diagnosed children, I’ll ask about the parent’s jobs, expecting to find common careers, like engineering, computing or science disciplines. Sometimes the connection is less direct and it turns out that the child has an uncle or grandfather who could have had various isms. It’s usually just a matter of asking the right questions.
There are also good reasons why these invisible differences tend to follow the male line. If you think back to your high school science class, you’ll probably remember that females have an XX chromosome structure while males have XY. Essentially, this means that a baby girl has a “choice” of three X’s, two from the mother and one from the father. If one of those X’s is less than optimal, there is a spare. Male children however have only one choice for their Y. If it carries a genetic ism, then it’s pretty much a given that they will inherit the trait.
It’s not quite as simple as that and there are many other factors to consider but the most important thing to remember is that genetics is the key and that the odds are significantly higher that the traits will come from the father’s side – particularly in boys.
What this means is that quite often, behavior which seems out of the ordinary to mothers is considered perfectly normal to fathers. It’s not uncommon for fathers to say, “I was exactly the same when I was little”. Unfortunately this response often leads into a denial of the problem and a failure to allocate appropriate resources.
Focus on Treatment, Forget the Labels
I know of families who have struggled for years with acceptance of a diagnosis. In some cases, it has broken up marriages while in others, couples regularly argue on the topic at their child’s expense. These are households under great stress and nobody benefits.
If you can’t agree on a label, then at least reach an agreement about your child’s specific needs. For example, look at some of the following in your child, relative to his similar-aged peers;
Speech: Does your child speak slowly, enunciate poorly or frequently use incorrect words in context. It could be that he has difficulty with speech, understanding or hearing. It’s best to get these checked out by qualified professionals. You don’t need a diagnosis to do this. If your child needs help, then the answer, regardless of the label is for a professional, such as a speech therapist or an audiologist to work on it.
Coordination and Muscle Control: Does your child have an unusual gait (walking or running style) compared to other kids? The unusual gait should be investigated, particularly in cases where it impairs the child’s normal development. Of course, if the gait does not affect the child in any way, then there’s no reason to correct it.
There are other aspects to coordination and muscle control. You may find that your child appears clumsy or has difficulty kicking or catching a ball. Perhaps they tire more easily than their peers or experience discomfort doing everyday tasks (pencil grip discomfort is a very common complaint). All of these skills can be improved with practice and training. Arranging a session with an occupational therapist can be very helpful in this regard.
Academic Issues: If your child appears to be having academic difficulties and needs support with spelling, math or grammar, you can arrange for some one-on-one tutoring. You don’t need to have a label to do this although there’s a good chance that a label will help with funding. Your child’s school will also probably have a special needs tutor. You should certainly arrange a meeting to talk with the special needs teachers as they can direct you to useful resources but you may find that this is one area in which a label is required to enable them to get involved. In the United States, a good place to start is with your school district’s child study team.
Change, Stimming and other Social Issues: If your child is having difficulty transitioning between classes, or activities within classes, then there are plenty of easy options, such as making a visual timetable. If there are social issues, then play-acting, flash-cards or social stories may be appropriate. These are all things which can easily be done by parents at home. You don’t need a diagnosis to work on these with your child. There are plenty of good, free resources for these things on the internet. Don’t be afraid to give things a go.
There’s no doubt that raising a child with isms without a diagnosis is extremely frustrating and that the full support of both parents is what is really needed. Unfortunately, sometimes these things take longer than expected and while it’s very common for the other partner to change their thinking eventually, it’s not something that you should wait for.
What your child needs most is the support of both parents and some useful early intervention. Sometimes that means that you need to swallow your pride and allow your partner to feel that they are right… for the time being. In the meantime, instead of pushing for a label, you need to be pushing for services.
In the short term, a label won’t matter, particularly if it stops mom and dad from arguing and makes the home happier and more supportive. Early intervention without the label is still the most effective tool you can apply.