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To Parents of Neurotypical Children: Your Words Matter

A few weeks ago, I brought my son to a COVID-19 vaccination event at his high school. He was the last member of our extended family to be eligible for the vaccine, and he had finally decided he was brave enough to get it. My son is needle-phobic. I know that’s not unique — many people are afraid of shots — but the fear is a little more intense for my kid. More on that later.

While definitely not excited about getting a shot, he was surprisingly subdued as we entered the space where the event was being held: a large gymnasium filled with adults, teenagers, and middle-school kids. In fact, the mood in the room didn’t feel much different than any other district event that includes parents and children. It may as well have been student orientation, curriculum night, or parent-teacher conference day — not some momentous occasion that was the key to a summer of freedom.

So, in a room that seemed devoid of any emotion, the organizers of the event directed us from one station to the next in an organized and carefully choreographed fashion. First, we split into two lines. Next, we were diverted to one of three tables for an ID check. Finally, we landed in the queue that led to the administration of the shots. Socially distanced and masked, the people in the room shuffled from one station to the next in relative quiet.

And then, unexpectedly, a high-pitched scream reverberated throughout the gym, shattering the calm.

The scream was persistent and transitioned to a wail. It sounded like what you might hear in the waiting room of a pediatrician’s office when an unseen toddler gets jabbed the first time.

But we saw it was not a toddler. A preteen girl had taken off throughout the maze of nurses’ stations, and her mother (or a caretaker) was sprinting after her. I felt so much sympathy for the child (and empathy for the adult running in hot pursuit). The girl was either so terrified or traumatized that escape felt like her only option.

After this burst of activity, the room fell silent again. But I overheard the woman in front of me try to explain the incident to her son. “That must be a ‘special needs’ child,” she said. “Wouldn’t you be embarrassed if this was your school and you acted like that?”

I was startled by the juxtaposition of those two sentences. I could understand the mom’s attempt to give context to what was happening. Maybe she was trying to reassure her son that the shot wasn’t painful and that he — a neurotypical child — shouldn’t be frightened.

But that second sentence shocked me. Why was she trying to point out that the girl’s behavior was embarrassing? It seemed like the parent was trying to communicate a message that said, “Consider yourself lucky that you’re ‘normal’ because it would be devastating if you were like one of those kids.” Was that how her son interpreted it? That’s how I understood it.

It wasn’t that long ago that my son behaved in ways that likely inspired either pity or relief among the moms of neurotypical children. At an early age, he was diagnosed with a slew of acronyms — SPD, GAD, OCD, ADHD, NVLD — and I was overwhelmed just trying to understand how and why my once good-natured baby had become so anxious and unable to control his emotions.

Beginning with OCD rituals in first and second grade and culminating with violent outbursts in third grade, what I remember most about that time is how helpless my son felt and how he couldn’t figure out why he acted the way he did. And I’ll never forget how the administration at his elementary school isolated him in a room with only an instructional aide for the entire day. I was finally able to fight for him to be moved to a therapeutic day school because the public school system couldn’t provide what he needed.

In the meantime, private therapy wasn’t working and we were still trying to figure out the right combination of meds that could help him control his anxiety. Because his doctors needed to monitor the medication levels in his bloodstream, he had to have his blood drawn periodically. But he was so afraid of needles that he wouldn’t sit in the chair in the lab room — not even on my lap.

I vividly remember one episode in particular. He cried and screamed (much like that young girl at the vaccine event) and ran out of the lab office and into the hallways while screaming and crying (again, like the girl at the event). Angry tenants in the adjacent offices sternly told me he had to leave the building because he was disturbing their clients. It was a frustrating and demoralizing experience.

During this tumultuous time in his life, I’m thankful my son wasn’t bullied. But it’s clear he was labeled “special needs.” Not too many people went out of their way to talk to us or try to understand what was going on.

I’m not going to pretend it was entirely their fault. I didn’t reach out for help or try to make connections. My son wasn’t involved in sports or other activities so I missed out on establishing friendships with parents in my community. And I understand why the parents of neurotypical children may have been hesitant to get involved. They may have been worried they would say the wrong thing. I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt.

In any community, it’s more comfortable to socialize with people who you think are similar to you. It’s not often that people encourage their kids to venture beyond their peer groups and away from clubs or teams that cater to specific interest groups. Parents and their kids invest a lot of time participating in these activities, and it’s just easier to stay in your own lane.

But I believe that children — and society as a whole — would benefit from more diversity and inclusivity. If children can be exposed to new ideas and different perspectives when they’re young, they’ll likely be more tolerant later on in life.

I won’t come down hard on the parents that are currently not making an effort to be more inclusive, even though I wish they were more open to the idea. But there’s no excuse for a parent to act in ways that are intentionally exclusive. Telling your child that another child’s behavior is embarrassing or shameful because that child is “not like you” is an example of active intolerance. That message will shape the way a neurotypical child sees and treats neurodivergent kids. And those early-formed perceptions may predict how they’ll treat “others” later in life.

So, where you can, challenge yourself to make neurodivergent children and their parents feel like they belong. That doesn’t mean you must invite a child over for a playdate if you’re not ready for that. Instead, strike up a conversation in the park — just like you might do with any other parent. Or simply acknowledge the child and his family with a smile rather than a look of concern or disdain.

But if you choose not to be an ally, at least try not to make things worse.

And here’s one other piece of advice that may prove helpful. If anyone you know is fearful of needles, I recommend trying prescription numbing cream. That’s the reason why my son was able to stroll into the vaccine clinic with confidence. What a relief it is to discover how to solve a problem — whether it’s large or small.

See, we’re all working to fight these battles with our children. Whether they’re labeled “typical” or “divergent,” our kids share a lot of the same issues. For the most part, they’re not all that different from each other. But where they are different, let’s make a better effort to listen, learn, and grow.

This story originally appeared on The Second Half Challenge

Getty image by BRO Vector.

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