Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Parenting a Child with Cognitive Issues

I was just watching part of a movie called "A Child is Waiting".  I didn't see much of it because my child was waiting for me to change the channel.  But I did hear this angry parent instructing his autistic child's caregiver to "just give him everything he wants and make him happy" because he is has a cognitive level of a five year old.

I just have a few things to say about that attitude.

First of all, if your child has the cognitive level of a five year old, I envy you.  You can talk to your child and get an answer.

But seriously, if your child is "stuck" at 5 years old that means that he or she is going to be 5 for a very, very long time.  So you probably want to look into what are the best parenting techniques for a 5 year old.  As far as I know, "giving them everything they want" is light years removed from "making them happy"!  Practically no one enjoys being around an over-indulged 5 year old!  An over-indulged 5 year old in the body of a 50 year old is a big problem.

5 year olds need boundaries, security and new challenges.  They need to know that they can make mistakes and someone will still think they are terrific.  They need to know how to obey and cooperate and help to feel important.

But really, people with cognitive disabilities are never "stuck" at any age.  That's just someone's short hand method of describing a person's limitations.  Who wants to be described by their limitations?  Raise your hands.  What? No one?

I thought not.

People continue to change throughout their lives.  It's nice if there's somebody around to notice.  Sam, for example, has the "cognitive level of an 18 month old" whatever that means. But he has been at that level for about 28 years.  In that time there have been so many changes and delightful discoveries.  He has met and loved so many people and grieved their loss.  He has been depressed and elated and everything in between.  He is curious about everything and loves to investigate.  He is a precious valued member of whatever community he enters.  And he needs me to take care of and challenge him.

I need him.  I think everyone needs to be needed and Sam thrives in an environment where he knows he is needed.  He is part of a family and he is part of a community and he is wise and funny and precious.

Which brings me to what the caregiver in the movie said in response.  "The child does not know he is a tragedy.  Maybe the tragedy is in you."  Some people with cognitive disabilities are smart enough to know they are not like "other" people, but that doesn't mean they are tragedies.  "Normal" is kind of a myth anyway.  We are so much more than what we know.  Getting an advanced degree in college and a high paying job are not guarantees of a happy life.

Tragedy is a society that has upside down values.  We should celebrate the people we love and delight in discovering their unique abilities.  That doesn't mean life will be easy.  Most lives are not.  That's something we can call "normal".

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