What Moms of Kids With Invisible Disabilities Want You to Know
Presented by: Shepherd’s Flock Child Care & Preschool | Acacia Academy | SEASPAR
While some disabilities demand recognition via a wheelchair, hearing aid, or portable oxygen tank, others are more subtle. But that doesn’t make them any less real. Known as invisible disabilities, they affect 96% of people who have a chronic medical condition, according to one estimate. Caring for a child with any kind of disability presents extra challenges. For the parents of kids with invisible disabilities, those challenges often include the perceptions of their communities— including friends, family, neighbors, and teachers—perceptions that are uninformed at best and hostile at worst.
I talked to parents of kids with invisible disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Avoidant and Resistive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), hemophilia, and many others, to find out what they wish more people understood about their experiences.
Sensory processing issues are NOT discipline issues
According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, sensory processing affects virtually all aspects of a child’s daily life, including motor coordination, school performance, and relationships. A child with sensory processing disorder could have 20/20 vision and perfect hearing, but when he is in a crowded mall, his brain is not able to manage all of the auditory and visual information he’s receiving through his eyes and ears. While each kid reacts differently to overstimulation, some will scream or become physically aggressive.
What may look like defiance is just a kid doing his best to manage a stressful environment. The assumption that a lack of discipline indicates a failure by the parent is totally without merit. Jaime has a five-year-old son with level one high functioning ASD. She says, “discipline will not prevent him from being overwhelmed by his environment.” Says Lainie Gutterman, the mom of a seven-year-old boy with ASD. when he is having a meltdown, “Staring, pointing and offering your two cents is NOT helping the situation and will most likely cause my son or myself to feel worse and [his] behaviors to escalate.”
Similarly, Jennifer Lynn, whose son has ADHD, wishes people understood she’s not being rude or indulging her children when she leaves a party abruptly. “It’s just that we see the warning signs and are trying to help our kiddo avoid a meltdown.” She says events like family gatherings or vacations, which are fun for most people, “are stressful for our family because it’s just too much everything.”
A little compassion goes a long way
Regardless of their child’s diagnosis, virtually every parent I talked to described the pain of receiving judgment instead of compassion. Sarah Cottrell, whose son has hemophilia, is tired of challenging people’s assumptions about his diagnosis. She says, “He doesn’t have AIDS and hemophilia isn’t caused by incest. Enough with the wild theories because we need compassion and empathy for the unseen pain issues and unending fear and anxiety over covering his insurance.”
Most parents I talked to, particularly those of kids with sensory processing disorders, described organizing their days around their kids’ strict routines.
Every parent understands how easily the best-laid plans for meals, naps, and bedtimes can implode. What many parents don’t understand is how much higher the stakes are when your special-needs child depends on predictability for a sense of safety. Says Lisa Rosen, who says she must wake up 90 minutes before her kids in order to prepare for the non-stop mental and physical energy her son requires, “When adults look at my child, they see a happy kid… But I know that if ONE thing is off in our routine, I’m dealing with Hiroshima.” Her son Ezra, age three, has sensory processing disorder and is speech delayed. According to Rosen, something as seemingly minor as the smell of a classmate’s detergent could cause him to meltdown to the point where she must carry him out of the classroom. She described her family’s disappointing lack of understanding when she could not attend the funeral of a family member, due to a lack of childcare coupled with Ezra’s regimented schedule and complex needs. “Who knew compassion was so difficult to come by?” she asks.
The predictability some kids require doesn’t just extend to schedules and environments, but also to food. Brianna Bell and Jennifer Gregory each have a child with sensory processing disorder that makes them intolerant of many foods. Because of this, Bell hates sharing meals with friends. She says, “There is so much pressure from others for her to eat this and that and not be so picky. I feel rude bringing my own food but she starves if I don’t. And people just don’t understand and assume she’s spoiled.” Gregory asserts that her family doesn’t often eat together, often serves alternative meals, and that they allow screens at the table, and that works for them. She wants people to understand that for her family, “Mealtime is chock full of stress and anxiety and the goal is to get food into our son’s belly because he doesn’t eat enough. If an iPad distracts him from smells and texture and allows him to eat more, so be it.”
Parents described not only a shortage of kindness from other parents, but also from other children. Lisa Beach recalled her son’s adolescent years as being particularly isolating. He is now 20 and has Asperger’s. Beach’s advice to parents is simple: “Teach [your] kids to reach out and include rather than label and judge.”
Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there
When a parent is struggling to find a diagnosis, pay for therapies, or just get through the day with a kid who has an invisible disability, it is not helpful to insist nothing’s wrong because their kid looks so “normal” or that her IQ is so high. What may be intended as a compliment may come as a slap in the face to the parent who has committed precious time, energy, and money to her child’s disability.
Samantha Taylor’s 13-year-old has high functioning autism, generalized anxiety disorder and an eating disorder, while her ten-year-old has dysgraphia and anxiety. Although Taylor is open with her friends and family about her kids’ diagnoses, because they appear “normal,” she says people are often shocked when her kids says something inappropriate or react in a way that is out of proportion to the situation. Says Taylor, “While it might look to everyone in our lives that we are holding it all together, I worry about my boys every single day. I wake up thinking about what I can do to make their day easier, and go to bed wondering if I did enough.” In search of a supportive community, Taylor ended up creating a thriving Facebook group for moms of kids with special needs.
One mother who prefers anonymity describes feeling frustrated when people judge her for coming to her son’s aid. He is in his early 20’s and has high functioning Asperger Syndrome. While she may appear overprotective, that is not the case. She says, “High functioning individuals are acutely aware that they are different and sometimes have self-confidence issues. Shaming them for needing help is not productive and can contribute to anxiety and depression. Thoughtless comments can sometimes ‘undo’ progress that has been made.”
You’re an advocate
Parents of kids with invisible disabilities are not just responsible for feeding, clothing, loving, disciplining, and teaching their kids. They must also advocate for their kids in a system that does not always have their best interests at heart.
One mom, who preferred to remain anonymous, described the challenge of having a 12-year-old son who has ADHD and a learning disability. She described his teachers’ low expectations, recalling an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting where a teacher was clearly impressed with her son’s “C”, “and how great that was ‘for a kid on an IEP.’” To compensate for his teachers’ low expectations, she says she always reminds her son “[he] is smart and his IQ reflects that. There is no reason he shouldn’t be able to get an “A”… if he is provided with the right services.” She also described a general lack of understanding of her son’s ADHD diagnosis among his teachers, which she feels causes them to set unreasonably high expectations of him in other areas, such as his ability to get organized or follow a schedule.
Delaina Baker, whose son is dyslexic and has auditory processing disorder, described similar struggles with her son’s school. She says she wishes teachers were more accommodating of his IEP. Says Baker, “It is my right to fight for my child and if you challenge my knowledge of his disability, I can assure you, I’ll have a spreadsheet, charts, and back-up data to prove it.” She says she is grateful to have found an ally in her son’s Exceptional Student Education (ESE) coordinator, whom she feels is her son’s only advocate beside herself.
Parenting is hard enough without adding other people’s assumptions to the equation. Parents of kids with invisible disabilities just want the world to know, it’s only okay to assume one thing: They and their kids are doing the best they can.
By Pam Moore
Shepherd’s Flock Child Care & Preschool
Shepherd’s Flock is a newly remodeled Intergenerational Christian Child Care Center located on the campus of Lutheran Home. The center holds a Silver Circle of Quality through Excelerate Illinois which shows we are committed to quality improvement and excellence in education. We have several openings in our toddler and infant rooms. For more information or to schedule a tour please contact the Director, Jen Soukup at 847-368-7391 or our email at Jennifer.email@example.com.
Acacia Academy is a private therapeutic day school ages 6 – 22 for those with learning disabilities, emotional concerns, autism and intellectually challenged students who benefit from a personalized program designed to meet individual needs. Natural habitat and three-acre school Nature Center located on campus provides students with a unique outdoor experience and summer program. AdvancED accredited and approved by the Illinois State Board of Education for out-of-district placement. Transition programs and vocational services are available for ages 17-22. Kathryn Fouks, principal. 6425 Willow Springs Road, LaGrange, IL 60525. (708) 579-9040. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.AcaciaAcademy.com
SEASPAR is a special recreation association offering therapeutic recreation programs and services – including Special Olympics training and a multi-sensory room – for people with disabilities served by the park districts of Clarendon Hills, Darien, Downers Grove, La Grange, La Grange Park, Lemont, Lisle, Westmont, and Woodridge, and the villages of Brookfield, Indian Head Park, and Western Springs. Visit SEASPAR.org or call 630.960.7600 for more information about our year-round programming for all ages and all abilities!