A Message of Reality and Encouragement for Parents

I’d like to start this next post with a Supernanny Shout-Out: WONDERFUL JOB on last night’s episode, Ms. Deborah Tillman! If some of you haven’t watched Lifetime on Tuesday nights lately, Ms. Deborah Tillman is America’s Supernanny, having replaced Jo Frost when that venerable kid expert retired. By the way, I’m also a fan of Jo Frost, but…

So, why am I giving Deborah a shout-out? Well, if you saw last night’s episode, you know she was visiting the Fitzgerald family, whose third son Garrett has Down’s Syndrome. I’d upload a clip or two for you, but I don’t yet have the money to pay for that kind of upgrade to this blog, so I’ll just sum up. Garrett’s parents, Andy and Jenny, were completely worn down from dealing with Garrett, plus three other children–and all four children were under age ten. Andy, in fact, confessed to Deborah that he had low expectations for Garrett and–paraphrasing here–had “stopped expecting much from him anymore.” Meanwhile, if Garrett ran out of the house without permission–as he and any other small child is wont to do–his older brothers Jake and Dawson would tell Deborah, “He got out,” as though Garrett were the family pet. Garrett’s incorrect actions were not disciplined, or if they were, were handled inappropriately, such as lifting him and carrying him back inside when he ran out. Say it with me: the kid’s, I think, six or so. Since when can he not walk?

If you’ve seen America’s Supernanny, you know that Deborah always sits down with the parents after a day of observation to confront what she sees as needing change. I was a little skeptical of what she would say about Garrett, because after all, she is an “expert,” and as we all know, sometimes the “experts” for children with disabilities are really working from a construct that says, “do it this way, and only this way,” which may not be in the best interest of the child. But Deborah pleasantly surprised me. She said several things that made me want to cheer, such as,

“Garrett has Down’s Syndrome, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do stuff,” or, “That doesn’t mean he can’t be like everybody else.” Notice, too, that she never referred to Garrett as “Down’s” or a “Down’s kid.”

“When you set low expectations for Garrett, it lets him down…he can feel that…he’ll have low expectations of himself.” As opposed to some people who would’ve come in and discouraged this family more, by basically implying, however kindly, that it’s okay to have low expectations for a child with a cognitive disability.

(To Jenny, the mom): “You’re getting these assessments to tell yourself you’re doing something, but if you’re not following through, you’re not doing anything.” In response to the fact that Jenny had been to countless “experts” to get recommendations for how to respond to Garrett, but never put those recommendations into place–or really, I think, analyzed them and asked herself, “Which ones do I, as the parent, think will work best for my child? Is there anything here that we as a family can’t or shouldn’t use, and why?”

Deborah also made sure that Garrett was disciplined appropriately, with visual cues whenever he did something incorrect, such as losing a car from a box (he loves cars). She set goals that were manageable and realistic for Garrett and the parents, and provided plenty of positive reinforcement for everyone involved. And, she made sure that Garrett’s siblings, especially his older brothers, were getting the attention they needed and deserved from Mom and Dad, not only in spite of Garrett’s Down Syndrome, but with it–because the goal was to make the disability a normal, seamless part of family life, rather than something that caused grief, tears, and frustration. And that, I think, is the best thing any parent of a child with any kind of disability can do.

Yet too often in the media, especially where children with disabilities are concerned, people who view disabilities as Deborah Tillman does are a rarity. I’m not saying everything she does in response to them is right–for example, she still used the term “special” when talking about Garrett, and she praised him for sitting at a table to do his homework, rather than focusing only on the homework itself. (For more about this, see the post on inspiration discrimination–if you wouldn’t praise a child without a disability for sitting down, why do it to a child with one?) But her interactions with the Fitzgerald family were a welcome change, because the media often shows me portrayals like these:

-On Dr. Phil: The mother of 12-year-old Alex, who has autism, tells the psychologist she’s tired of being his mom. We see clips of Alex, screaming, physically fighting people, saying very few intelligible words other than “mean!” and smearing himself with his own feces. His mother cries and laments on the Dr. Phil set, while I sit at home and wonder, “Is this all you see when you look at your precious child? Have you tried other means of communicating with him, such as the assistive technology of a communication device? Do you realize these clips are perpetuating stereotypes and bleak prognoses for every child with autism?” To my relief, Dr. Phil did ask this woman if she thought the way she and her husband interacted with Alex was causing his behavior, but the fact that he was presented in such a way at all is highly disturbing to me, months after seeing the broadcast.

-In the movies: Films such as Rainman, Larry, Riding the Bus with my Sister, and others, continually perpetuate the stereotype that children with disabilities will always be and act like children. They will always make “normal” people mad or embarrassed, and will always flip out over small things, such as not being able to watch their favorite TV show. I had to watch Rainman in my high school psychology class; I was so disturbed that in retrospect, I should’ve asked to be excused.

-On and off TV, in various situations, such as on shows like Supernanny and beyond: Parents are generally shown grieving in some way over their child with “special needs,” lamenting that it causes so much stress, so much pain, they just can’t do it. Now, I am not for one second denying that having a child with a disability in your home means that your family will look different from the one you always pictured. But, do you think your children can’t see you grieving unnecessarily, as if their lives had already been lived? Do you think they somehow don’t know, or can’t tell, that you’re basically saying their needs have ripped your family apart? They can, and they do, and it hurts–just as it would hurt a child without a disability. But then, we don’t normally say those things about a child without a disability, do we?

I have an idea. Let’s stop the grief. Let’s focus on what our children with disabilities can do, and will do, and how we’ll help them succeed by making them part of our lives. Instead of lamenting over how much stress, pain, and negativity their needs bring us, let’s see their needs as just that–needs, not “special needs,” like any other child would have. Let’s do our best to raise these children the way we would if they had no disabilities–with appropriate discipline, real communication, and a lot of love–and show the world their best traits, not their worst. Their successes, not their failures. Their beautiful individuality, not their “behaviors.” Because if we show the world that, perhaps the stereotypes of mass media will fade–and then stereotypes in general will become gloriously obsolete.

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