A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

What If Your Child Is More "Special" Than You Anticipated?

Providing love and support will reassure her she's not alone.

Having made my peace with the idea that we all find our specialness and difference at the right time and in the right place, this winter I have felt myself falling down the rabbit hole, or am I traveling through the looking glass? One of my children, who has always been not quite like other children in some intangible way, seems now to be poised on the edge of something more categorizable. Without an expert's analysis, we don't yet know exactly what the name of her issue or issues may be, but it's becoming clear that there will be a name attached, and soon. While I certainly have enough perspective to see that we are lucky to be dealing with issues that are hardly life-threatening, there's something about this discovery that raises a conflicting, dizzying whirl of emotions. And I suspect that my feelings about difference are at the heart of this storm, which sometimes threatens to swallow me up.

When a child or person is diagnosed with something, be it a learning disorder or a psychological condition of some kind, they become "other." Certainly, in recent years people have become much more accepting of this kind of otherness: we don't stone our mentally ill to death, hang them as witches, or even--as in more recent memory--lock them up in institutions and try our hardest to forget they exist. But however tolerant and understanding we as a society may have become, there's simply no getting around the idea that a person who's been diagnosed with one of these problems is still, well, different. 

The mental health profession is scrupulous these days about distinguishing between traits that fall within a normal behavior range and those that fall outside it: popularizing the concept of "the spectrum" has been valuable beyond measure in helping people accept that otherness occurs in different gradations, and (more important, perhaps) that we all contain its seeds. Seeing traits on a spectrum, whether we're talking about temperament or sexuality, is a powerful means of countering our innate human tendency to view the world in binary terms--us and them, I and you. That is a major challenge to the status quo. Yet while I can admire the idea of a spectrum, and aspire to be tolerant and accepting of otherness, accepting it into my own life presents quite a different challenge.

When I say my child may be different or special in an "other" kind of way, part of me wants to cry and part of me wants to laugh. To have confirmation for the first time that her behavior may fall outside the realm of what most other children and parents are dealing with is both terrifying and incredibly freeing. All my life I've valued specialness, to some degree, and now it's being thrust upon me. I confess (with trepidation, knowing that others have been dealt far greater challenges) that I'm having trouble with the idea that my child may need special care and attention--yet this is the child I have, and I want desperately to be the best parent I can to her. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether all children don't, in fact, deserve special care and attention. While the saccharine reassurance about "being given the challenges you can handle" doesn't comfort me--it terrifies me, because sometimes I'm really not sure I can handle this--my anxiety is assuaged by accepting that perhaps this is simply a variation of the (hard) work all parents do. 

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about some of the challenges we've faced in raising my daughter, and the response from other parents was overwhelming and emotional. A number of people told me they wept when they read it, and this wasn't because my writing was so brilliant (though I wish it were!); it was because they recognized themselves or their children in my descriptions. I was writing about having a child whose behavior deviates from the norm enough to shake my faith in myself and in her on an almost daily basis--and yet a surprising number of other parents felt the same way.

My child is never going to magically grow out of her difference, nor will she ever suddenly be "normal," though I'm not even sure what that is any more. I need to confront the part of me that recoils from terms like "special needs" and embrace that this may be my--our future. I've never believed that we are in complete control of our destinies, so let me plunge into my future (and hers) with all the terror and love and hope and despair that accompanies the unknown--and that accompanies all parenting. We're special: now how do we make that work for, rather than against us? I wrote in my last post about walking a line between being special and being embraced, and as the parent of a child who may face greater challenges than others, that now has to be my goal: to help her accept and celebrate her specialness while providing the bedrock of love and support that will reassure her she's not alone.

What I cooked this week:

  • Farfalle and Tomato Sauce with Sautéed Vegetables (from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking; I always puree this sauce smooth and my children love it)
  • Risotto with Asparagus 
  • Boiled Rice with Mozzarella and Parmesan (this and above also from Marcella)
  • Roasted Chicken
  • Gratin of Yams with Chipotle Cream (The New York Times Cookbook)

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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