- Monica Pickard spent twenty years of her adult life as a child care provider. During that time, with the help of her husband, she raised her son who has been diagnosed with Autism and Developmental Delay. She learned to navigate a world that was new to her – the world of Special Needs. She now shares these experiences and the wisdom they taught her, with love and heartfelt compassion for the human condition.
Friday, January 29, 2016
Oftentimes we take communication for granted. It seems to come so easily for many of us. As toddlers, we begin learning how to talk and we progress into learning all of the various forms of communication from there. It seems effortless until we watch a child with an intellectual disability struggle to speak, to gesture, to get anyone to understand what they want and need. That is when we begin to think about everything involved in communication. The brain functions necessary – the motor planning, the cognition, the physical act of forming words and making your words clear, pointing to the correct words and symbols on a communications board – are very complicated processes. This list only scratches the surface of what is involved in communication. Many people with Autism have trouble understanding facial expressions and body language, causing them to be subjects of ridicule among their peers, and creating misunderstandings when people communicate with them. We do not begin to think about any of that until we are confronted with a person who cannot easily and effortlessly learn the intricacies of communication.
When children are little and begin learning how to talk, parents sometimes feel like they need a break from the constant questions and observations children make. Later, parents wish their teenagers would talk to them more. At that point, the only communications parents get are one-word answers. No questions will be asked and no observations will be shared for the next several years! This wish is something parents of children with special needs have in common with parents of typical children. Except that for the parents of children with special needs, it is often a life-long wish. I cannot count the number of times I wished Joshua could tell me what he wanted or explain his problem. Did his stomach hurt, or his head, or was he simply irritated by what was happening? Did he want something different, and if so, what? Why does he always choose the last item I ask about? Is it simply easier for him to choose that one rather than processing both options I gave him, or does he really want that one? Many parents have expressed these frustrations when parenting a child with communication issues. There is another part of it that we don’t speak of. It is an ache in our heart that never completely goes away.
I long to really, truly know my son; to hear his observations, or to see them in written form; to know his thoughts and feelings, and what he thinks about the world we live in. How deeply does he love his family? Does he miss his grandpa Pickard, and what precisely does he miss about him the most? Does he understand why grandpa is no longer there when we visit grandma? Does he know how much I love him? Does he know how much joy he has brought to my life, or how much he has caused me to grow and change in positive ways? What would he have me do differently as his mom? These are the questions I long to have answered. These and so much more! When your child is not able to speak to you or communicate easily, it is impossible to know how they feel about many things. This is one of the things we must be able to accept, once we have done everything we can to help them learn to communicate. The ache remains, but acceptance soothes it just enough. It has to because without acceptance we suffer more.
One thing I have discovered over the years is that communication is even more complicated than I described earlier, not only with people with special needs but with everyone. It is a two-way street and we do not have control over people in the other lane. We cannot control the things they say to us, nor can we control the way they hear and interpret what we say to them. You can say the same thing in the same way to three different people and get three different interpretations of what you said. Four, if you count your own meaning. A long time ago, someone told me to watch what I say to him because he was interpreting what I said differently than I intended. We had several miscommunications because of it. Maybe he needed to watch how he heard things! The truth is, for both of us to be more conscious of our delivery and interpretation would be helpful in every interaction. Communication relies on both parties. There is the intent of the communicator, the way they say it, their attitude, and their perspective. There is the way the receiver hears it and interprets it – which is based on their life experiences, their perspective, their assumptions, and their attitude. Even after you have said something with as much love, compassion, neutrality, and good intentions as possible, there will still be people determined to hear it with their own negative, closed-minded filter. There is nothing you can do about that.
As I said, we cannot control the way another person interprets what we have to say, especially in written communications, but making an effort to be as clear as possible, taking into account the personality of the other person and considering various ways they might interpret our words, can make a huge difference in being understood. I have had several online communications that did not go very well because something I wrote was read with cynicism or sarcasm when I did not intend it that way. I began to realize that people may have taken my words that way because I was presenting myself that way online, particularly on Facebook. I am working really hard to change that now. I have written in some other posts about don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements and I have found them to be extremely helpful in many different situations. The first one is: Be Impeccable with your word – Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
If I remind myself that being impeccable with my word could also entail avoiding sarcasm and cynicism, I present myself in a much better light, and one that is more consistent with who I want to be. There have been times when I was not sure how to take something someone else wrote. This leads me to Ruiz’s third agreement: Don’t make assumptions – Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. I would add to this a simple saying that is full of insight to lead us toward our best intentions: Assume well of others. If you absolutely must make an assumption, it is best to assume well. I have decided to assume well of others when I am not sure of their meaning or intentions. If I am wrong, they will either correct me or laugh behind my back. I won’t take it personally, which happens to be agreement number two: Don’t take anything personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
Communication may never be easy with some people who have intellectual disabilities, but it may be helpful in every situation to remember Ruiz’s fourth agreement: Always do your best – Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.
Until next time, Friends, be safe and be well!
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