Monday, December 10, 2012

Mythologizing Recovery

I've been continuing to read "Far From The Tree".  It's a very long book!  I've finished the chapter on autism, and I'm going to write more about it when I finish the whole book, but in that chapter, there was a quote that struck me very hard.  It was written by Cammie McGovern, the mother of an autistic child, in a New York Times op-ed piece (you can read the whole piece here) and it said "In mythologizing recovery, I fear we've set an impossibly high bar that's left the parents of a half-million autistic children feeling like failures."  That says a mouthful.  She says in the piece something I've thought---that you don't really meet these recovered kids outside of the books.  I am sure they exist, in a way.  In fact, I have one in my own family, in my son, in a way.  But I don't think he was ever autistic to start with, and if he was, I didn't "recover" him.  He recovered himself, or his brain recovered itself.

Do I feel like a failure because it doesn't appear Janey is going to "recover"?  Well, strangely, although I am prone to feeling guilty about everything (including the ducks going barefoot, to use a phrase I heard growing up), I don't feel guilty about that.  It is not my goal to have Janey recover, because I don't think it's possible.  And I am not going to use her whole childhood to try to do something that I don't feel in my heart is possible or is in her best interests.

I was thinking of an analogy.  Say you had a kid, a "typical" kid.  A great kid, but with a huge amount of trouble with math.  This kid just doesn't get math.  He is good at a lot of other things---let's say he writes poetry, he plays chess, he is a fast runner---he's a cool kid.  But he is no good at all at math.  And that just is not okay, with his family or school.  They decide to "recover" him, to fix his math problem.  And because anything worth doing is worth doing all out, they go all out.  They start a 40 hour a week math tutoring program, for starts.  They have him get rewards for doing math.  Before he can play chess or write his poetry or run, he has to do a math problem.  They work math into every part of life.  Now, this kid is never going to be a math whiz.  Not even the most optimistic people think that.  But the goal is that he be indistinguishable from any other kid with his math abilities.

One of two things can happen.  He can recover to the point that he functions as well as anyone at math.  It took him about 20 times the effort, and he doesn't like math, and he is not going to have a career in math, but he is okay at it.  Meanwhile, he's lost out on time he could have spent doing things he's really good at.  He's been hugely frustrated over and over.  He basically didn't have a childhood for years, recovering that math.  The other result---it doesn't work at all.  He doesn't learn math.  Maybe he can do a few math facts here and there, unpredictably.  But he will never, ever be in a regular math class.  The time teaching him basically has been wasted.

Now let's look at another way to handle his math problem.  We could say "well, math is not his thing.  It's quite helpful in life to know a little math, so we will work with him on that.  He will have math lessons now and then, but we are certainly not going to let it take up time he could be living his childhood.  We are going to emphasize what he's good at.  We will help him with math, but we realize that he won't be going to MIT.  He won't be taking calculus.  He might spend his whole life with a little trouble counting change"

Of course, the skills autism takes away are more life-changing than math, but the basic theme is the same.  I accept that Janey is autistic.  There are things she'll most likely never be good at.  But there are things she's very good at, and besides that all, she's a kid.  I could go all out "recovering" her, and maybe, maybe, she could get closer to "normal", although with her intellectual disability, that's not likely.  But she'd lose out on a lot.  Or it might not work at all, and I would feel like a failure.  Some people might say it was worth it, that I should have done 40 hours a week of ABA, a special diet, intensive floortime, high dose vitamins, a private school.  I say no.  I say I'll keep doing what I'm doing, and what her wonderful team of teachers and therapists are doing.  I'll work on the autism, but I'll leave time for music and running around outside and snuggling and laughing and a childhood.

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