“That’s typical.” Those are words that parents of special needs children hear quite often. While the words are well intentioned, they can sting like antiseptic spray on a scraped knee.
I adopted my son when he was ten years old. He spent the first five years of his life in utter chaos. The following five years were spent bouncing from one foster home to another. During a time when children should experience consistency, boundaries, nurturing, and love, my son was instead being taught that adults are not trustworthy and, in order to survive, he had to rely on himself.
As a result of his early traumas and his prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, my son has a laundry list of diagnoses, an alphabet soup of acronyms that could make your head spin. However, all of my son’s disabilities are invisible. When looking at him, all you can see is a handsome, dark-eyed boy with a goofy grin and a thick shock of hair that seems to stick straight up no matter what we do. You would never guess that he has very little concept of cause and effect. You’d never know that the simplest of choices can completely stymie him. You wouldn’t see that he has no grasp of the subtleties of language; he takes everything literally and at face value. And you wouldn’t guess that the smallest of things—like noises, smells, a song on the radio, or the simple act of seeing someone taking off their shoe—can trigger a memory and send him into an utter panic.
The Fireworks at Home
I had my first introduction to the range of my son’s anger and fears just a few days after he moved home. We were going to see the amazing Fourth of July fireworks display my city puts on. My son, aware of his own issues with noise, asked me to buy him earplugs. I did. I was a rookie back then; now I would know that the request was a big red flag—his way of telling me he was feeling anxious. But, being a rookie, I had no clue. When it was getting near the time for us to go, my son started to make odd beeping noises. Then he started chewing on his hand. When I tried to touch him to see what was wrong, he flew into a rage, screaming and kicking and throwing everything he could get his hands on.
It was a tantrum the likes of which I had never seen before. In time, I was able to calm him and, needless to say, we didn’t go to the fireworks display.
When I spoke to some friends about the incident, I got comments about how tantrums can be hard to take and how “all kids do that.” They meant well. They were trying to reassure a newbie mom. But, even as green as I was to this parenting gig, I knew that there was more going on with my son. This wasn’t a typical tantrum—there was a desperation and an urgency in his eyes that isn’t usually there when a child is overwhelmed and throwing a fit.
Knowing What’s Typical … and What’s Not
No child is skilled at expressing his feelings with words. That requires a level of emotional maturity that children haven’t developed yet. (For that matter, neither have a lot of my ex-boyfriends.) But for a special needs child, expressive communication can be even harder. That’s why it’s necessary to determine the communicative intent behind the behaviors to understand the reasons for acting out.
Special needs children and children with traumatized pasts may have behaviors that look typical, but the reasons for and the intensity of the behavior is far from typical.
A good friend of mine adopted a little girl from Russia. Her daughter is extremely attached to a small, silky blanket and it’s an area of concern. Others have told my friend that it’s typical for kids to have a comfort item. But my friend knows better. It’s typical for children to have a comfort item, but it’s not typical for them to bang it against their head and violently grind it into their eyes. Her daughter has Sensory Integration Disorder, and her comfort item provided her with a tool for her sensory-seeking needs. Understanding that her daughter’s behavior was beyond the typical allowed my friend to get the proper diagnosis and to find ways to help her daughter. Just letting her daughter use the comfort item in any way she wanted wouldn’t have helped. Simply taking the blanket away wouldn’t have helped either. It was necessary to find the communicative intent—the greater need behind the behavior.
Finding the Communicative Intent
Finding the root cause of my son’s behaviors is a constant struggle for me. Being an older child, my son came to me with his issues already diagnosed, so I don’t have to fight that battle. But diagnoses like his don’t come with an all-encompassing handbook. It’s not like pulling out the manual and figuring out how to change a tire on your new car. My son’s varied mix of organic issues, trauma-based issues, and anxieties all overlap, and his outbursts and behaviors can be due to a combination of any of his issues.
It’s my job to be sensitive to all of that. To try to look beyond the behavior at hand, find the core of the issue, and help him through it. It’s a task that’s easier said than done, especially when you have Power Ranger action figures being thrown at your head.
Reflecting my son’s feelings back to him often gives him the power to use more words. When I see him getting riled, I’ll say, “You feel frustrated/angry/scared/sad.” And then I’ll be quiet. Sometimes he’ll just nod in agreement. Other times, he sees the bait I’m dangling, won’t bite, and continues with his fit anyway. But then there are times when he can elaborate, as if my giving him that emotion in a word gave him the freedom to talk about it.
My son and I talk about things that upset him long after the upset is gone. Rehashing emotionally-laden events during calm moments seems to add a new level of clarity to the event. When words seem too much, we use tools like behavior mapping or techniques like tapping to help us through.
The Juice Is Worth the Squeeze
Adopting an older, special needs child when you’ve never parented before … well, that’s kind of like trying to pitch at the World Series when all you’ve ever done is play t-ball. But the juice is so worth the squeeze.
My son and I have been a family for just shy of two years now. We still deal with issues on a daily basis and we probably will forever. He continues to have behaviors and moods that completely take me off guard. There are times when I have absolutely no clue what to do. But then there are the times when we work together on his issues like a well-oiled machine. We ease through tight spots and navigate around corners and find that we’re stronger—more connected with each other—after each trial.
Underneath the cold, clinical diagnoses lies a warm-hearted child who fills my life with joy. Digging through the troubles is difficult at best and utterly heartbreaking at times, but with every little bit of effort comes a wide world of rewards. I chose this child, issues and all. And it’s easily the best choice I’ve ever made.