It was time for the ever-dreaded visit to the pediatric dentist.
Surviving these visits required so much encouragement, fake enthusiasm, and total hypocrisy on my part as I cheered and forced my kids to sit through something that I require almost full sedation for. (Yes, I ask for laughing gas just to get through a basic cleaning. Don’t judge.) Anyway, both of my daughters had an appointment for their regular dental cleaning and my eldest daughter, Isla, was up first.
Before the cleaning began I was asked by the dental hygienist to verify Isla’s medical history which included the diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not otherwise Specified, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and speech delay. As the hygienist began cleaning Isla’s teeth, I noticed that she subtly would slouch her shoulders or put her hands down from working as if frustrated that Isla was not cooperating. Seeing as her demeanor was not as cheery or patient as we had experienced with other dental hygienists in the past, I decided to stand and try to comfort Isla. The hygienist mumbled, “She is not opening for me. She is just not opening her mouth enough.” I smiled and tried to encourage Isla to open her mouth a bit more as the hygienist told her: “You have to open up so I can show your mom why she needs to start helping you brush your teeth.”
Ouch. Low blow.
A comment like that seems harmless unless you are a mother with a daughter who has special needs. A daughter who used to gag to the point of dry heaving almost every time I tried to brush her teeth because of her sensory abnormalities. A daughter who experienced lockjaw when a toothbrush went into her mouth, sometimes with my finger inside. A daughter who has had her teeth brushed by an adult her entire life and she is almost ten years old. Naturally, I started to feel very uncomfortable with her insensitivity and as my pulse quickened I got that weird tingle in my ear that you feel when you’re embarrassed or caught off guard. Again I simply smiled and was able to help open Isla’s mouth wide enough for the hygienist to point out a molar with plaque. She told me that she could probably do the rest of the cleaning with a regular toothbrush but it was already way too late for my little girl. Isla has always had this gift of reading people. She may not understand everything you are saying but she reads body language, eyes, expressions, tone, and demeanor and instead of trying to please you she will shut down. She was not feeling comfortable or safe so she just laid there and would not open her mouth at all. The hygienist then told Isla, “If you do not open for me we will have to call the dentist so he can come clean your teeth and if you don’t open your mouth for him, we have straps we use sometimes if we need to.”
I thought to myself:
Say whaaat? Oh girl, no you didn’t! Wait. Am I on “What Would you Do?” because if I am being filmed I am about to go to jail for real.
I was stunned and not expecting any of what was happening to react fast enough. So, I was nice and said, “Yes, I think it is best we get the dentist over here”. The hygienist then looked at my sweet girl and said: “Yeah, I am going to call him because you are acting like a two year old.”
-Insert courtesy pause for your gasps-
I started to feel my chest rising and falling hard as a rage washed over me I had never felt before. This primal rage came on strong and was mixed with confusion, disbelief, disgust, and sadness that to adequately describe to you in detail would require me to willingly fail at being anything close to a Christian woman for at least five minutes solid.
I took off the paper bib around Isla’s neck, packed up our things and grabbed both of my girls’ hands. As I walked away I sputtered angrily but quietly, “Isla is autistic and you are being very rude to her. We are leaving.”
By the time we reached the exit I was breathing fire. I stormed out of the building and as I allowed everything that had just happened to consume me, I started to cry a really weird hyperventilating cry that had me rushing even faster to my car. The office manager came out after me and was so concerned and wanted to know what had happened. So through tears, flailing arms, still not able to catch my breath, and half screaming I said, “The hygienist was so rude and disrespectful to my daughter! She was annoyed and impatient and threatened Isla that she would strap her down if she didn’t cooperate. Then she told her she was going to call the dentist because she was acting like a two year old! Isla is autistic! She has pervasive developmental disorder and speech delay so yeah no s#!t she is like a two year old! Thank you so much for the reminder!”
Oh people, not a proud moment.
Looking back it was such an excellent opportunity to show my girls self-control, kindness and tolerance on my part for someone who was unkind and intolerant. I wish so much that I would have had the composure and grace to sit in front of the hygienist right then and there and assure her that I am very much aware that my daughter will never act or talk like anybody her age. This is a reality that my husband and I have not only accepted but embraced. I could have explained that we are a family that has spent years praying, crying, begging, searching for answers and help. We are a family that has been to hundreds of appointments for behavioral specialists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, neurologists, psychologists, MRIs, EEGs, brain mapping, genetics tests, allergy tests, ADHD tests, completed trials of ADHD medications and dealt with all of the side effects that come along with them before deciding to stop them all. We are a family that has moved away from our home, church, schools, jobs, friends and extended family to find special care and schooling for our daughter to help her reach her fullest potential. We are a family that has been to more ARD meetings to count and attend parent trainings at a specialized school weekly to this day. I could have explained that that is why it is so hurtful to say to a family like this... with a beautiful, innocent little girl like this... that their daughter is acting like a two year old.
How incredibly powerful would it have been to say with a voice of confidence and control that regardless of what age Isla acts like and regardless of her diagnoses, she still deserves to be treated with kindness, tolerance, patience, and most importantly respect. I could have drastically turned that visit around but instead I was a hysterical fool and the worst part is, my daughters witnessed it all.
But not to worry guys, it wasn’t long until I had a chance for redemption.
The valuable lessons I learned that day all came in very handy for one evening in the bathroom of a gymnastics class.
Isla and I walked into the bathroom to change Isla for her gymnastics class when we saw a young girl that was Isla’s age getting her hair brushed by her mother. I recognized them both and nodded hello when the young girl blurted out, “Hey Mom that is the girl that bit me when I was little!”
I frantically started scanning the bottom of each stall to see if one was available. The mother was an acquaintance from years ago and at a minimum she did know that Isla had special needs. The mother said nothing. The little girl repeated herself, “Mom don’t you remember? When I was little I got bit and that was the girl that bit me. Mom, remember?” By this point I found an open stall but Isla was frozen in the middle of the bathroom staring at the young girl. She was reading her face, her attitude, her body language and would look back and forth from the mom’s face to the little girl’s face and even though she didn’t know how to respond, she was very much aware there was tension building. She could feel it and she knew it was all because of something she did wrong. The mother said nothing and pretended like nothing was happening. I put my arm around Isla and led her into the open stall and quickly locked the door.
I was scrambling to do the right thing. I considered poking my head out and nicely saying, “Her name is Isla and I am very sorry if she bit you many years ago. A lot of children bite when they are small.” I also considered poking my head out and saying many other things that I am too ashamed to admit or write here. I took a deep breath as the little girl repeated herself for the third time. The mother did not utter a single word the entire time.
It was a moment for me when I had to accept that there will always be children who don’t know any better and parents that decide that dealing with children with special needs doesn’t concern them and it is best to be and remain silent. In that moment I also realized that although I cannot control the voice of others, or lack of, I can always control my voice and I can always control the kind of person and mom that my children see and hear and learn from.
I knelt down and started to dress Isla. She was burning a hole through me as she stared me down watching my eyes and facial expression change from a look of surprise, to anger, to frustration, to pensive, to calmness.
I stared right back at her and quietly said, “Hey Isla, did you know that you have super beautiful hair?”
Isla looked at me totally confused, “Wha?” (what?) she said.
I said, “Yes! Isla, when you were in my tummy I dreamed that you would have super beautiful curly big hair and you do!”
Isla started to giggle.
I continued, “Hey Isla, don’t you love this new gym outfit? Gosh, you picked a good one girlfriend! I love the color. Doesn’t it feel so good on your skin?”
Isla started to rub her tummy and felt the spandex snug against her belly and said, “Yes Mom! It feel nice!”
We finished dressing and I hugged her tight and whispered in her ear, “You make me proud."
Then I said, “I love you Isla girl.”
She replied, “No matta wha” (no matter what).
As we walked out of the stall the mom and daughter were still standing there and as we left Isla smiled and waved and I said softly, “Have a good night ladies.”
We sometimes work so hard to advocate for our children, whether they have special needs or not, that we can easily forget that our voice is not only heard by the doctor or teacher or coach or other parent or therapist or whoever we are interacting with. It is first and foremost heard by our very own children. They not only hear our voice but sense the anger, sarcasm and attitude behind it. They not only hear our voice but see our body language and facial expressions and demeanor as we speak and react. I seriously have learned the hard way that finding my voice as a parent means I must be intentional and mindful to find and use the voice I want my children to hear. That is the voice they will remember. That is the voice they will mimic.
So in light of the #metoo movement let me clear that I will not teach my young daughters to use a nice voice. The definition of nice is pleasant, agreeable, and a synonym is delicate. (Insert emoji of your choice here but I recommend the eye-rolling emoji, or the green vomit emoji or maybe even the red one that blows up. Your pick).
Big fat NO to being nice. Been there done that.
I will teach my young daughters to use the voice of kindness.
Kind is defined as generous, considerate, helpful, not causing harm or damage and a synonym is concern. Being nice is superficial and let’s be honest, most of the time it’s fake and forced. Being kind is so much deeper and sincere and more importantly, it implies action. So when someone makes my daughters feel uncomfortable or when they need to advocate for themselves I don’t want them to be nice and say “oh that’s OK”. I want them to be kind and look that person in the eye and say, “I am going to be kind to you today by being honest that what you did or said made me feel really uncomfortable and I will not let you do that again.” That approach is generous in honesty and considerate and helpful to the next woman this person may encounter. (Of course if this involves unwanted physical contact my daughters have been instructed to kindly punch them in the face.)
Through both of my daughters I have learned so many lessons that it took me a whole book to fill and one of those lessons was finding the theme of the voice I would use to advocate and to parent. So I work hard every day to make sure my daughters hear their mom use a voice that is kind, but firm. A voice that is controlled, but strong.
As for my son, well that is a different blog post but let me just say that my husband is a coach so if I ever have issues with him as my son’s coach, I will not need to use my voice. A week of cereal for dinner and the silent treatment should do the trick.
Let's just be kind to each other today.