Small Victories

As parents, we think a lot about our children’s trajectories. Where will they go? What will they do? Who will they become? We think about this so much because we realize the awesome responsibility we have to support kids to fulfill their dreams, achieve their goals and, as if that’s not enough, make sure they also learn the skills of surviving in the world.

We so often assume all kids’ trajectories are the same. I was at an academic dinner recently and my colleagues were talking about their children, many of whom are teenagers. The talk (of course!) turned to academics. “Where is your son hoping to go to University?” and “You have to start planning for post-secondary now!”

It was only a matter of time until the inevitable happened. The lovely and kind woman sitting next to me turned to me and asked, “So, what subjects is your daughter strongest in? Are you thinking about what University she’ll attend? It isn’t long after all, just four or so years!”

I took a strategic and leisurely sip of wine and thought about how to respond, in a way that not only respects my fabulous kid but also doesn’t make this lovely woman have one of three predictable reactions: 1. to feel bad and look at me with a pitying, sad look; 2. to try to tell me that “Oh, you never know!” or 3. to totally downplay the great achievements of her own kids, e.g. “Meh, that full Harvard scholarship with automatic entrance to MIT for grad school, nothin’ special there!” These are the three typical responses to any answer to an academic question that involves “autism” and “developmental delay”.

Georgia’s trajectory is likely to be far different than many other kids. This, for me, has been a struggle. To readjust my expectations. To take real pleasure in small achievements. To be genuinely proud that, at age 13, she has learned to tell time and recognize the word “cat” without my having that twinge of regret that she’s not doing complex fractions or reading Catcher in the Rye.

I’ve grappled with this – I’ll be honest. I’m an academic, a driven high-achiever and a geek who has always been immersed in learning. I was reading poetry and burying myself in novels when I was 13. Did I expect that my daughter would be just like me? Well, maybe. We all kind of do, in a way, don’t we? A love of math, a talent for drawing, an aptitude for sports. We hope that we can find a common ground for enjoyment with our kids, a shared strength handed-down, a kind of camaraderie via communal passions. I’ve struggled to adjust my expectations and be genuinely interested in things at her level.

It’s tough some days. Case in point: we’ve read the same board book, at Georgia’s request, before bed since she was, oh, about 5. Every night. And it’s always interesting for her. Which, in a way, both fascinates and amazes me.

While typical 13-year-olds are learning how to be responsible and independent, we are teaching Georgia to tie her shoelaces, to look both ways before she crosses the street and to recognize her street name on a sign. These are NOT one-time learning opportunities. These are multi-year commitments.

Georgia can’t understand why all movies don’t provide 3D glasses to wear. She cannot use a knife to cut things well and hasn’t yet quite mastered the skill of eating soup without wearing most of it. She needs to be reminded to watch where she is walking and hold handrails. She worries that when a plane is at altitude it’s not moving at all. She cannot touch her toes. I help her get dressed each and every day and do much of the work myself while she chats and giggles. She cannot read more than a few select three-letter words.

However, listen to this. She has learned her home phone number this year. She can tell time and she does that almost too well.  She can maneuver an iPad and the three TV remotes better than anyone else in the house. Sheremembers the name of every dog and every baby she’s ever met. She can brush her hair, mostly (it’s okay, we encourage the wild look in our house), can brush ALL her teeth, can wash her face and put on deodorant (if you’re not picky about it being in the exact right place). She uses her finger to trace words in a book and knows that rice is a grain and butter is dairy. She has memorized the signs for Ikea and Metro and (okay, okay) the LCBO. Last year during on our summer vacation, on about day 10, she simply and unexpectedly dived under the water and that was it – she was a swimmer. She dances with an innate sense of rhythm and soul. She has most Bob Marley songs memorized and can also sing a pretty sweet rendition of “Hey Jude” – with real feeling – in the back seat.

The thing is, I’ve realized a few things in what I’ve felt was kind of a selfish struggle on my part with this, well, difference between us. I’ve realized just how incredibly hard Georgia works to do the smallest thing, to achieve the kinds of things other people simply take for granted. I’ve learned to appreciate just how much motor planning is required to put on tights and a t-shirt. When she uses a new word out of the blue, I’m in awe. I’m absolutely thrilled when she arrives at the back door, ready to go, coat zipped up, hat and shoes on – all on her own.

I’ve learned patience beyond belief and an appreciation for the unexpected joys found in what others consider to be tedious repetition. I’ve encountered pleasure in the mundane and reasons for celebration in the everyday. The small and often hidden victories are, I’m discovering, almost always the best.

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