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“Not Now” Doesn’t Mean “Never”: Expectations for Children with Autism and Related Disorders

Posted Jul 17 2012 11:46am

“Not Now” Doesn’t Mean “Never”: Expectations for Children with Autism and Related Disorders

July 17, 2012 By Nicole Beurkens, PhD

My husband and I had three sons when our daughter joined our family.  I was thrilled with the idea of finally being able to put one of my children in dresses, buy cute little shoes, and do her hair.  After three boys, it was time for me to have another female in the house to share my love of all things girly!  When she was tiny, I was easily able to put cute little things in her hair and she left them there.  At some point all her baby hair fell out so there really wasn’t much hair to do anything with (I resorted to headbands for photos!).  When she was about 14 months old she had a lovely head of thick, dark, curly hair that is just begging to be done up in cute bows, pigtails, and tiny braids.

There is just one small problem – she refused to leave the darn things in!  I tried everything – winding the hair bands tighter, doing her hair while she has a snack to distract her, buying different types of clips, doing her hair while wet, and doing her hair while dry.  You name it and I tried it.  I really thought I had her beat one week when I washed her hair and spent time putting it in small little twists all over her head.  I used tiny little hair bands that were “guaranteed” (according to the package) not to pull out.  She looked so cute, and I was feeling really good about having finally triumphed over her in the hair department.  And then she went to bed.  And in the night I heard her up laughing and laughing and laughing.  And in the morning her hair looked like she’d gotten way too close to an electrical outlet, with every single hair band strewn around the floor of her room.  What’s a mother to do?!

My husband watched this drama from afar for weeks, and had to put up with my scowls when I came home and her hair was running wild all over her head.  He would give me the story behind how it came to be that the hair décor she had when I left the house in the morning was no longer – she tried to eat the bows; she threw the hair bands on the floor; she got mad and yanked them out; and on and on.  Finally he said something that didn’t make me happy at the time, but that I knew made sense.  He suggested that our daughter just wasn’t ready to keep bows in her hair, and at some point she would be able to do that.  However, in the meantime maybe I should stop setting myself up for disappointment and struggles between us and just let it go.  Darn, I hate it when he’s right!

There are many times in life with our kids that we have to know when to adjust our expectations.  We have to know when to let things go, at least for now.  Parenting a child with autism and working toward remediation often requires walking a fine line between having high expectations, but also knowing when s/he just isn’t ready to do something.  Parents will often tell me that they just want their child to have a friend.  They may go to great lengths to “get” their child a friend, including setting up play dates, hosting events, and bringing their child to every extra-curricular activity imaginable – all in the name of this quest for a friend.  The reality, however, is that when children are developmentally ready to have friends, they will.  Until that time, we can push, fight, struggle, and devote ourselves to the cause all we want; and probably depress ourselves, burn our child out, and fail to devote our time and attention to working on the developmental foundations that will allow our child to actually have a friend someday.

I believe that what this all really boils down to is having trust the developmental process, and knowing that “not now” doesn’t mean “never”.  My daughter did learn to keep hair bows in and enjoy them-but it wasn’t on my timetable.  Children with autism and related disorders who are getting back on the typical developmental process will get to the point where they are able to engage in very real and meaningful ways – but it might not be right now.  There is a process to everything, and half the battle is understanding that process and knowing when to let go – for now.

I continued to work on letting go of my need for my daughter to have her hair done all the time when she was little, but the difference was in my expectations.  I stopped expecting to come home to her hair still looking nice, because I accepted that it was an unreasonable expectation at that point.  Think about the reasonableness of your current expectations for your children.  Are there things you expect them to be able to do that perhaps they just aren’t ready for?  Are you constantly frustrating yourself, your child, and others around you by pushing and pulling to meet an expectation that is out of reach at this point?  Are you spending more time trying to force your child to an end goal without working on the developmental progression that will get you there?  If this is true for you, then I challenge you to reset your expectations.  Be willing to let go of these expectations for now, knowing that you are putting your time and energy into working on the steps that will get you there.  “Not now” doesn’t mean “never”!

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