Monday, April 21, 2014

Typicality: Beyond the Check Marks

I wrote a reflection yesterday. These types of posts are usually written rather quickly. I don't often revise or edit any of my posts (because I'm lazy) but these ones I don't even spend a lot of time thinking about grammar, style, or sentence structure as I write them. They call this technique "free writing" and I use it when I am trying to purge a lot of thoughts out of me that I am struggling to verbalize.

As I was free writing last night, thinking more about the spirit of what I was saying than how I was saying it, I wrote a thought that I think must have been evolving in my subconscious for quite some time. I've never expressed it to myself or others, so it is a 'brand new idea' to me, but I feel like I have been mulling on it for the entire year, and maybe longer.

"This was the year of Charlie.

This was the year of first smiles, first crawls, first laughs, first words, first steps, first kisses, first everythings...tiny little check marks on a list of milestones...

Lists, written by doctors, who think they know my child.

But no where on the list does it ask me who she is.

All it wants to know is what she can do."
 (From "Random Reflections on 32")

14 month old Charlie loves to have tea parties...

My daughter. My wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, capable daughter. 
This child who perplexes me as much, if not more than, her brother. 
This teeny-tiny body, barely 17 lbs and delicate like a china doll, a veritable force of nature...
Barely able to walk and already taking the world by storm.

I don't write a lot about Charlie. 
This is not because I don't think about her a lot, and it is definitely not because I don't have anything to say about her. 
I think about her all the time, and I could speak about her for days. 

No, I don't write about her because I am trying to walk a fine line between invading my children's privacy, and advocating for the acceptance and awareness that Sam and Autistic people like him need. This is a tricky thing, and I don't always succeed. But it is at the forefront of my mind when I write anything. 

And- at this time- I have no indications that Charlie is Autistic. 

In fact- at this time- Charlie is about as 'typical' as they come.

Or at least the lists tell me so. 

She walks- apparently, as of two days ago- which is the only thing she has done 'on time'. She also climbs like a pro, and has for months. She throws a ball. She scribbles and draws. She screws caps back on bottles and pouches of apple juice. She picks up the remote control, turns on the tv on the first try, scrolls the channel button until she finds Treehouse and looks at me, proud of her accomplishments. 

I look back at her, speechless. 

She talks...a lot. All the time. She started using words at around five months old, and now has dozens of them, and learns new ones every day.

Sometimes, she even uses multiple-word phrases. "Nico, hat funny!", she says and giggles away...

And she is already picking up on some two prompt requests. "Go get that block, and bring it back here..." I say, and she complies, all too happy to show me how well she understands. 

She plays. With everything. The way that things are supposed to be played with. She poured her father tea, and asked her cousin to play a game cooperatively with her. She was heartbroken when he stared at her- confused by the idea of "together" play. Children this age play side by side- but they seldom play "together". 

She wants to do everything herself. And she usually can. 
She wants to do everything I can do. And she gets frustrated when she can't. 

She looks in your eyes- or rather, she dominates your eyes. She seeks them out, and stares you down, to the point of invasiveness. Her inquisitiveness knows no bounds, and she has firmly identified herself as the Alpha Female of our household. 

At 14 months, she has almost completely plowed her way through the 'developmental milestones' checklist for 24-month olds. And she is actively working her way through the list for 36 month olds.  

I told you- she's kind of amazing. 

In fact, she may be 'exceptional'. It wouldn't surprise me. We suspect that her brother has traits of being exceptional, traits that will be observing closely as these will add layers of beauty and of complexity to his already beautiful, complex experience of the world. 

But exceptionality isn't something we talk about a lot when it comes to 'typical' kids. By its very definition, typical would indicate an anti-exceptionality. It would indicate a sameness, a 'to be expected-ness'. If you are not delayed, there is nothing unusual or atypical about you. You are 'normal'. And if your child is advanced, then they are seen as even more typical. 

Or, you are seen as a biased, bragging parent who is completely incapable of looking at empirical charts and ascertaining that yes, in fact, your child is significantly advanced and no, you are not lying about it. 

Because there is no "check with your pediatrician" box on developmental charts for advanced development.

There is no reference to it at all.

"Wow, they are really bright! What a smart little girl" they say, and check their little check marks on their list. 

And into the 'typical' category they go. Signed, sealed and delivered: "As expected". 

A check marked affirmation of normalcy. 

While this may seem like one of those 'humble brag' posts written for the sole purpose of highlighting Charlie's awesomeness, I assure you that I have a point. 

Charlie is awesome, yes, but I don't need to feign humility to tell you that. Quite frankly, I have zero humility when it comes to my children's awesomeness...

But her awesomeness has nothing to do with those check marks. 

And it would be rather silly of me to brag about how many she has ticked off when I don't actually believe in the tool to begin with...

No, the intention of this post is- quite frankly- to highlight the ridiculousness of these tools being used as any sort of real barometer about a child's abilities, capacities and future. 

Do they indicate something?


They are great at identifying a very specific subcategory of kids who have traits that are noticeably different enough to mark them with the great big scarlet letters ASD, or other conditions like it. They are great for picking out the kids from the crowd who are just divergent enough to be easily separated from the herd and cast off into their own pastures. 

The lists are great at finding "Sammies", who- by virtue of his non-speaking, happy-flappy, wandering-eye ways- is an easy target for finger pointing and fear mongering...

It's the Invasion of the Autie Snatchers...and they are everywhere. 

But what these lists fail at, in an epic and monumental way, is doing anything more than creating a completely artificial, socially contrived false dichotomy where some kids are deemed 'normal' and some kids are deemed 'delayed'. 

There are only two categories in these lists, and you either fall into one or the other. 

And that's just not the way real life works, folks. 

Real life knows that the real 'spectrum' isn't Autism; it is humanity as a whole. And 'if you've met one person with humanity, you've met ONE person with humanity'.

So when I'm asked if I'm relieved that Charlie is "normal", I have to suppress a smirk. 

Cause at this point, I've met a lot of non-speaking four year olds...but I have never met another one year old who places a tea cup on a saucer, pours 'tea' into it, and passes it to you expecting you to drink from in and join her in her imaginative play. 

There's no box for that under her age appropriate milestone list. That one won't come for a few years yet...

'Typicalness' is a social fabrication; 'normal' is a myth. 

And let me tell you this much: There is nothing 'typical' about Charlie, regardless of what the lists say. 

And I wouldn't have it any other way.  

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