–by Donald Craig Peterson [originally published on the author’s blog, Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love, March 19, 2018]

logoPlain and simple. Parents know their children best from years of observation and interaction. They might not used fancy terms. They might not know the latest clinical terms.

But they are the experts. 

If someone asks. If someone doesn’t assume. If someone engages them and builds a meaningful conversation. They deserve a voice. 

For children with special needs, that relationship-based process is even more important. It develops common ground amid uncertainty. Subsequently, it drives outcomes to serve them.

After adopting my first three sons, I was extremely lucky. Their teachers and doctors understood early trauma and worked closely with me to create a smooth transition. And they accomplished just that.

Then the following year I encountered my first taste of anti-parent sentiment at a school case conference, even though I had taken time to attend a special education seminar and read the state law from cover to cover. Those condescending words became forever etched in my brain.

You don’t understand how we do things here. We know best what your son needs.

Then talk to me. Let’s share stories, compare notes and learn from one another. But don’t exclude me from the dialogue. Or talk like I’m not in the room.

At the same time, don’t take my words as justification that I’m “helicopter parenting.” I’m not the type who constantly makes excuses for my children. I’ve let natural consequences play out. On numerous occasions I’ve watched my children fail when they refused to try.

Moreover, I hold my children to reasonable standards – consistent with their abilities. And I never expect preferential treatment – or favors for something they haven’t earned.

In reality, I’m not asking professionals for the moon. Just a little common sense. Just a small dose of compassion mixed with empathy. Just a sense of equality.

MegaphoneKeep my children safe from harm. That includes bullying – especially when the adults aren’t watching.

Identify their strengths (because they have many) and use them to counter their challenges. Some tasks will always be hard – thus the need for accommodations. Some may prove impossible.

Prioritize. A day has only so many hours.

Focus on mastery of essential concepts. Guide me in ways to continue that mastery at home – without busy work that wastes everyone’s time.

Balance my family’s privacy with the opportunity for others to understand the facts about my children – along with ways to assist them.

Engage them socially and build bridges with peers, since isolation is a daily reality.

Guard their self-esteem – always. They already feel a sense of unworthiness. Help them achieve success in something every day, without too much praise. Set the stage for more of the same.

For the most part, I’ve been able to engage professionals when I remain open, come prepared, concisely state my case, avoid negative comments and keep emotions in check. And I go one step further – offering to be part of the “team” and to do my fair share at home, because I want my child to succeed.

That small gesture always produces a positive response. Furthermore, it reduces assumptions and enables an understanding of family cultures and home environments. The “fair share” at my home is not necessarily the same as another parent’s.

And that’s perfectly ok.

To begin the process, I encourage parents to prepare and practice a one to two minute introduction (or reintroduction/update) of your child. When moms or dads attempt to mention everything about their child’s disability in a single breath, the most important details easily become lost in the volume of words – and emotions.

Less can be more.

I would go one step further and put your words in writing and distribute them to prevent misinterpretation. And don’t be afraid to ask for specific help. Most people want to assist; and with the right approach, they can be engaged – soon asking the right questions and offering solutions.

The geometry teacher who redrew diagrams – making them less abstract and empowering my youngest son to pass his course.

The retired woman who never shamed my daughter on their Sunday outings after church – in spite of her behavior. 

The female therapist who found time to call my middle son during a crisis – within hours, not days.

The Special Olympics executive who called upon my athletic son to be a leader when others only saw his deficits.

The middle school administrator who refused to give up on oldest son – often calling me on speaker phone so he could hear the voice of cooperation, not triangulation. 

track meet

Nonetheless, some adults in positions of authority won’t change. They are always right. The parent is always wrong.

Avoid these individuals at all cost – be they psychiatrists, primary care doctors, therapists, teachers or coaches. They talk out both sides of their mouths. They undermine trust. They leave a mess for the parent to clean.

The speech therapist who insisted that services were no longer necessary – since my child wouldn’t progress.

The psychiatrist who ruled by authority and wouldn’t allow anyone to comment.

The young probation officer who blamed me and wouldn’t hold my son accountable.

The “social skills” specialist who did her “own” diagnosis and wouldn’t learn about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

The neighbor who repeatedly called child protective services – without substantial evidence – and wouldn’t talk to me when approached.

One final reminder – progress notes. They are written by teachers, therapists or doctors. Parents or guardians have the right to see their child’s file.

Like me, moms and dads will be surprised.

Misinformation. Misperception. Misdirection. Then all the “misses” become part of a permanent record. And they can be used against parents one day. 

Even though they are the experts.