Most parents know what I mean by “quirky:” kids with diagnoses like ADHD or autism, or learning disabilities, or difficult temperaments or complicated early histories. Instead of using words like “mild” or “high-functioning,” I’ll say that these kids don’t necessarily need special schools. They can fit into the mainstream most of the time.
My ten-year-old son is one of these quirky kids. He blends into the social landscape so well that being closeted is an option, at least in certain settings.
James’s dread of everyday hassles (homework, substitute teachers, nail clipping, missing toys, traffic, eating at a restaurant) leads to lengthy tantrums that limit our family life. At the same time, James is a valued member of his little league flag football team. To put that in context, my high school nickname was “chicken legs,” and I still shriek anytime a ball comes my way.
How did a boy who needs his little sister to tie his cleats end up on a team that doesn’t know he has autism?
My husband Bruce gets the credit.
Out in the open
Much of the time, we disagree when it comes to James. Sometimes even in front of James. Our marital disputes are more like high school debates than barroom brawls. We each pick a side of a complicated issue, and we natter away until we wear each other out and one of us wins.
Since I’m writing this, I get to go first. Closeting people makes their quirks seem shameful. What’s more, you notice the quirks when they stick out, not when they blend in. And that’s usually for some negative reason like a loud voice or a loud outfit.
I have other motives beyond supporting my own son, having worked for 10 years as a clinical psychologist before having him. Public understanding of individual differences lags behind even our meager professional understanding. Closeting makes it worse.
I’d rather prevent a mishap by being up-front with the diagnosis than blurt out the A-word to patch one up. Autism isn’t a tragedy. It’s a difference from the norm that’s sometimes neutral or positive, and sometimes negative.
So, I thought we should share James’s diagnosis with his new football coach. Was this so different from sharing his evaluations and history with his new teacher every school year?
Bruce thought so. “I think you’re making a big mistake, but go ahead,” Bruce said, eyes rolling.
“If we don’t say the A-word, he’ll assume James is a brat. Or not very bright.” There you have them, my two worst fears.
“It’s football,” Bruce said. “None of that matters.” Which was a low blow, since I’m an Eli Manning fan.
Bruce wasn’t trying to make James “pass.” Rather, he thought the diagnosis irrelevant to football. So, why bring it up?
Bruce won that argument.
James’s team is called The Highlights. Before it became clear they were going to lose all their games, the coach set up a weekly ritual. The boys circle around the MVP and cheer while he re-enacts his best play. Like a highlight reel.
Guess who was the first MVP?
James stepped into the circle, re-created his jumping touchdown catch and also the Cam Newton-style celebration he indulged himself in afterwards. First he did a “dab,” stretching out both arms and nodding smugly toward an elbow. He followed that up with a grimacing, drawn-out Superman bodice-ripper. The rest of the team erupted into laughter. It was a great end to a tough game.
“Do you people realize how fabulous this is?” I wanted to bellow into the crowd. “James isn’t like these other kids! When he was little he didn’t even know what a ball was for!”
Thank goodness I have some self-control, and a smart husband.
As good as it feels to be applauded, it feels even better to be part of a team, week after week, not the “special” kid everyone’s going out of their way to include. Using the A-word would have robbed James of a rare, pure victory. In my defense, most of my parenting mistakes come with the best of intentions.
As often as I’ve wished that Bruce would back me up, I’ve been glad for times that he doesn’t. Parents don’t always need to put up a united front. Each can play an opposite – but equally important – position when the job gets tricky.
Lynn Adams writes about quirks of child development. Her work has appeared online in The Washington Post: On Parenting, Redbook, and Salon. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter, or subscribe to lynnadamsphd.com