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It's Time to End the Stigma Around Early Intervention

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I frequently run into people from all walks of life at my daughter’s appointments. Usually accompanied by their own child, they are shocked to see us. While I am very open about our journey, many casual acquaintances are unaware of our family’s below-the-surface disabilities. It strikes me as surprising how often what follows the initial hello is an embarrassment and lots of quickly uttered unnecessary explanations. I’ve gotten to the point in our journey where I want to stop the verbal babbling before it starts. I want to tell them, “You and I are here, at this place, doing right by our child. There is no need to explain.”

This embarrassment around the need for early intervention is a problem. No child is perfect. Every child will need a little extra support in their life at some point. Some, like my daughter and even briefly, my son, will need more. By recognizing this need and then doing something about it, we are giving them the best possible chance to thrive and live a great life. There is no embarrassment in that.

It is called good parenting.

But I realize not everyone has the understanding that comes with 18 years in the classroom. So let me share it with you: the only way to improve academic and behavioral difficulties is a lot of work. No amount of hoping and praying is going to help your child overcome life’s challenges. By letting your insecurities prevent you from moving forward, you are sending them a message that differences are something to be feared. Take a moment and let that sink in. I know that is not the message you want to share with your child. So let’s debunk the fears you have around early intervention so you can go back to be the amazing parent you are.

Fear #1: My child needing help is my fault.

Wrong. We should end that topic right there. But we can’t because, at some point or another, every mother feels this way. Please repeat after me; perfection does not exist. We need to do a better job of reframing how we talk about congenital disabilities and developmental issues so the blame does not fall on the mother. I did the same things when I carried both of my children, and not one minute of their lives have been comparable. There is something to be said for long-reaching family genetics.

Fear #2: If I were a better parent, my child wouldn’t be having these problems.

The best parenting in the world isn’t going to fix a speech problem, but working with a speech pathologist will. The same theory applies to anxiety issues, autism, learning disabilities and life skill delays. Good parents react to a problem after it happens and get their child help. Amazing parents see a potential future problem and seek out assistance before it becomes an issue. You are only a bad parent if you deny your child the help they need because of your self-image issues. If your child needs extra help and you are getting it for them, then pat yourself on the back. You, my fellow parent, are doing a great job!

Fear #3: People won’t treat me the same or include me if they know my child needs extra help.

Let’s clear this up right now. If someone is going to judge you or exclude you from events because your child has a therapist to help with their anxiety, you don’t want that person in your life in the first place. Take a moment and ask yourself honestly: What is that person going to add to your life? How will that friendship benefit your family or help support you during hard times? If you answer with an “I don’t know” or a “nothing,” then it is time to find a new friend.

Parents of children with disabilities and differences make the best friends. Why, you may ask? Long ago, we had to throw our preconceived image of what life was supposed to be like out the window and live in a world called reality. This world is messy and chaotic but surprisingly beautiful. In this world of reality, where our children don’t meet milestones and struggle at playdates, minor successes deserve applause.

Parents of children with disabilities cheer when your daughter makes it through her first sleepover party, or your son finally independently reads his first chapter book. These are the people you want on your journey. Many of them are the most well-read and educated people around positive parenting and intervention strategies you will ever meet. They are knowledgeable, accepting and understanding. They are a dream parent friend.

Fear #4: They’ll always have a label.

So what? Categorizing and labeling is a human thing. We sort people into groups all the time. Every 10 years, we pay people to find out where we live, what we do, and if we are married or not. It is called the census.

My point is, labels are created for us all of the time. And while some labels are wrong, others are not. I intend to wear the label of “Mom” for the rest of my life. I also hope to keep the label of “wife,” “friend,” “teacher,” and “author,” too. When we give a name to the difficulties our children are having, it also not a bad label. Maybe she’ll have the label for her life, or perhaps she’ll work hard and outgrow the challenge. Does it matter? If the label gets your child needed help, does it matter how long they wear it?

You are giving a name to what they are experiencing. It’s just another part of who they are. It’s not scary, and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. My daughter’s anxiety makes her an incredible artist. Our labeling it and teaching her how to manage it allows that talent to shine. But if we treat her anxiety and autistic tendencies as a bad thing, she will always be afraid of it and never learn to accept herself for the beautiful soul she is.

In the end, our job as parents is to accept our children for who they are so that one day they will learn to love and accept themselves. If we only accept the shiny, bright, perfect parts of them, what life lessons are we teaching? So the next time you run into someone while getting some “extra help,” chat with them like you would at the grocery store or the playground. We need to teach our children that getting help for yourself is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Getty image by Katarzyna Bialsciwicz.

Originally published: February 5, 2020
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