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Seeing Beyond Invisible Disabilities

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Maggie Vink: Hello, kettle? This is the pot. You're black.

kid in restaurant

My son has a history no child should have. In the 10 years before I adopted him, he experienced abuse, neglect, mistreatment and great losses that would bring an adult to their knees. Subsequently, he's left with emotional issues and scars that even I struggle to understand at times. Occasionally, his fears and anger come out in less-than-healthy ways. Tantrums and rages are the most common, but sometimes he has a hyper, scared (and somewhat strange) reaction when he's overstimulated.

Recently, my son and I went out to eat with my sisters. My son was calm and in a good mood, but as soon as we were seated, he started to wind up. I immediately engaged him in an activity on his kids' menu place mat, then handed him my cell phone so he could play games. It stalled the meltdown, but neither diversion saved the day.

In time, my overstimulated and nervous son was beeping and barking and making odd little screams. Soft rock was playing in the background, but the people seated near us were treated to a chorus of "Ruff! Wrah! Waahhh! Beep. Beep. BEEEEP! Ruff! Ra-ra-ra-ruff!" I did what I could to refocus his attention, but I could only contain his outbursts so much. Soon he was climbing under the table, crawling all over me and banging on the back of the booth like bongo drums.

I'd like to say that this was incredibly unusual behavior. But actually, I've seen it all before. And as far as public meltdowns go, it really wasn't bad.

My son may have challenges, but he's a wonderful kid with tons of potential. He harbors anger inside, and he's riddled with issues and actual disorders that sometimes overpower him. Most of the time he and I can manage his issues, but sometimes they grab hold and won't let go. All of my son's issues are invisible disabilities -- issues that aren't apparent at first glance. At times, I suspect that people in public places may be judging him and/or me, and I always feel a bit prickly about that. Sometimes I just want to stop someone who's looking at us askance and say, "Please don't assume my son is just being a brat, and please don't assume I'm a bad mom. There's so much more to the story than you can possibly know."

Sometimes I'm guilty of something similar, though. I tend to be pretty good at handling my son's biggest issues; when things really escalate, I manage to stay calm and help him through it. But the little things -- like him emptying the remains of his popcorn bowl all over the clean dishes in the sink -- frustrate me. Why can I handle the elephant-sized behaviors, but find the mouse-sized behaviors difficult?

The other diners in the restaurant could look at my son barking and beeping and think he's just an average kid who happens to be a bit rude. For me, his disabilities are never more apparent than when he's really melting down. All of his past trauma, all of the behaviors associated with his disorders, all of the psychological damage that's been inflicted upon him are right in the forefront of my mind when he's flipping out. Patience isn't hard to come by when I'm so aware of his past and his issues. But when he's calm and just acting like himself, I tend to forget all of that and just think about him. So when I've told him to go brush his teeth 15 times and he still forgets, my voice starts to raise a little.

I don't want to be the pot. I don't want to be the kettle. I need to make sure my son's issues aren't invisible to me, ever. Otherwise, I'm doing him a great disservice.

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1 comments so far | Post a comment now
Liz April 21, 2010, 4:49 PM

Good article! I have pretty much the exact same issues with my son. He’s 16 and intellectually extremely gifted but has a social/emotional age of around 5-7 yrs. Because of the relatively “normal” physical appearance it’s difficult for people to see that he’s not trying to irritate them when he barks or beeps (yes, my son does that too!) at the most inappropriate times, it’s just how he handles over-stimulation or other environmental things that may ‘bother’ him. Things have gotten much harder as he has gotten older and the age ‘gap’ has gotten larger but I still have this feeling that his time to shine is yet to come and he will not disappoint when it does.

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