I’ll never forget the day. The hour. The moment. I have had plenty of moments since then but this one was a big one. I was with a mom group. They knew me well by then. They knew my daughter. They knew she was full of energy. Bright and extremely social. They knew for even being a toddler, she was impulsive. They seemed to understand. I was grateful for some semblance of socialization as a new mom to a new city. We met at parks all over the city. Most were really hard for us. It was near traffic, near dangerous areas, had super high climbing stuff that my toddler could and would climb faster then a blink of an eye. The others in the group wouldn’t think twice about going to these parks. I, on the other hand had to strategically plan for each and every dangerous scenario. I would map out the playground to figure out the best places for me to stand to make sure she was safe. Not because I’m a helicopter mom. But because I needed to keep her alive.
The group was sitting in a circle chatting. I was on top of a play structure with my child, making sure she was handling a social encounter with having nice hands. A mom from my group came over to get her child. We started talking. I explained that I would love to catch up but how that particular park was hard for us as it was so close to a busy road and my daughter had a mission to run. She stopped, looked at her, looked at me, and said “Tiffany. Have you ever thought about just telling her no?”
Those words carry so much weight. So much meaning, judgement, and stigma. Did she mean it to carry the weight? Of course not. But it did.
Being a mom to a unique child can be lonely. Isolating. Social isolation is a real struggle with families of social needs kids. Reasons for this include but are not limited to care giver fatigue, they can’t find others who can relate, feelings of inadequacy as a parent which result in feelings of embarrassment when out in public, and having any down time or ability to make connections. They also may not be able to find other children who click well with their children. And especially when you have a sensory kid, that can make or break socializing. Because a sensory avoider may really struggle with a sensory seeking friend.
Sure, we would go out. We would “socialize.” I would pack up the car, find a safe place, try so hard to make friends. Try to meet people. Parents would be interested. My sweet daughter may run away, may react to something a bit differently then theirs, may push them instead of using words she didn’t have yet.
I would then panic, thinking, “ok ok ok Tiff. Behavior is communication. Parents may not know this. They will say it’s fine. But you know they don’t mean it. Do I let them think she’s a naughty kid or do I tell them she has special needs, which one is “worse?”
And whatever I said, didn’t matter. They would act nice, for a bit. It may happen again and they would have to leave. Or they would steer their kid away. Many were nice and even tried to get our number. We would exchange numbers. Maybe meet again. My child may have been a bit too physical. And I would get ghosted. And sure, life happens. But it’s pretty obvious that that played a big role.
None of this is my child’s fault. And it’s really not even my fault. We were trying our best. It’s that society is conditioned to steer clear of anything “extra.” We just keep our head up and have decided to build our village as we see fit. We pick and choose. I’m not actively looking for friends. I let them happen organically at this point.
At times it’s lonely because while being friends with parents of all different abilities and needs is what I strive for, many parents don’t understand my family. Especially me as a mom. They see me fighting for something that they don’t see a need for. They find me a bit “much.” They may not understand us or may be afraid to ask. They see me doing peculiar stuff at a park for safety and they may not see a need for it. They think I’m over reacting when by the looks of it, my child takes two steps (but I know what she’s thinking and I know what will happen next), and how I move to stay close to her. They don’t understand our synchronized safety dance. They think my child looks “fine.” They don’t have the same interest or hobbies then us because we’ve got other goals and abilities that we are looking to meet and manage.
I truly in my heart believe that these parents have no ill will or bad intentions. This is what we’ve grown up with. It has to do with their unconscious perception of who they want their child to be friends with. Or who they want to be friends with. That’s right. I said it. And you know what? That sucks. It’s not ok. And it’s something I’m striving to change.
Thirty years ago I remember a child running away from school. The teacher ran after him. She sat on him. The principal came. It was a whole thing. He was declared the bad kid. It was encouraged to stay clear. I think back to that from time to time. Elementary school. Being labeled the bad kid. Can you imagine? Talk about setting him up for failure. Talk about a missed opportunity to teach us a lesson of inclusion.
A better solution is teaching kindness to children. Explaining that sure, people will be different from you. And that’s great. Showing it yourself. Becoming a model for your kids. Not make belittling statements. Ask how you can help. Acknowledge that that mom may feel lonely on the playground with the rest of the group sitting down. And maybe go up to that lonely mom and strike up a conversation. Because we have a lot to say. And most of it is stuff we all have in common. Like lack of sleep and how kids only like carbs.
Even better? Stop judging other parents. Stop judging kids based on a small glimpse of them in public. Stop going onto social media talking about how you saw a “mom do this” or “child do this.” What is it to you? Does it make you feel better to post that? But I ask the question. What does it do to them? And an even bigger question, what’s it do to our ever learning and curious children?