When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. I Corinthians 13:11-12
James had an in class essay last week and the prompt was to write about the transition to adulthood. What he chose to write about was really interesting to me because it touches on the complexity of raising and relating to someone who could not reliably talk from ages 2 to 14 and who then gained almost full communication through spelling.
As he explains in the essay, we his parents had so much more control over his life, his activities and his choices than either he or we desired. For 12 years (I say 12 because he had typical baby toddler speech until age 2) we had no way to understand what he really wanted except by guessing, intuiting, observing body language, negative outbursts, and lots of trial and error. It was extremely exhausting, sad, and exasperating to name a few aspects of it. And it also created some very negative patterns of relating to one another.
James became reliant on me and his father for survival because if you can’t express basic needs and wants someone has to learn how to read your mind or you won’t make it. But after years of this unfortunate reliance when he finally could communicate it was hard not to fall back on the old ways of relating. Easier to have an outburst and hope your parents can read your mind rather than spell it out! So much easier to stay a child without taking responsibility for your behavior especially when you have a significant disability. But this essay is written about shedding the old ways and taking on the new. Its about growing up and becoming a young man.
Why? That question plagued every conversation for months. To be fair, I wanted to explain everything. I wanted to provide all of the reasons. I wanted everyone to finally understand me. One problem: I had few justifiable answers.
My first conversation began when I was fourteen, and suddenly I could actually explain and defend my actions. When asked why I grunted in anger, I could tell my tutor that I disliked her tone. When I cried in frustration, I could recite all of the reasons my life felt unfair. I thought these explanations made me an adult. Eventually, however, I realized my error.
As a child, my parents controlled my life, understandably. Adults gave me choices that I could select, but these choices contained only two or three pre-approved options. Even before I could converse, I made these choices: computer versus music, mom versus dad, cookie or no cookie. Seems wonderful, right? For a toddler, perhaps, but for a teenager, I easily became annoyed. I wanted more options – I wanted to make my own options. At the same time, however, I wanted my family to already understand what I wanted.
Once I could compose responses to questions, I thought I had the answer to my prayers. My options expanded, and my explanations, requests, and choices actually impacted my future. When I asked my tutor to read me a book, she did! But then five minutes into the reading, boredom set in. So then I grunted my displeasure. She just stared at me, perplexed. She questioned why I grunted instead of using my letter-board to talk to her. But I countered that she should have realized I grew bored and switched activities to engage me. This situation repeated itself innumerable times, in various forms, over the following year.
Prior to communication via my letter-board, my choices impacted only my immediate future. For example, I chose what food I ate on my plate, but I could not explain why I disliked a particular food. Once I learned to communicate, my parents wanted to learn why. Why was I annoyed, why did I become frustrated on that outing, why was I displeased. Suddenly I needed to explain my reasoning to adults, and they found my explanations lacking maturity. They rejected my reasoning that a friend greeting my tutor before me validated my grunting outburst. They also failed to reassure me when I cried because they ignored me, when really they needed to use the bathroom. Finally, I could explain my actions, but my communication only proved my childishness.
For two years, I falsely believed in my own adulthood. Then, one day in my literature class, I realized the truth. In order to be an adult, I have to communicate before I react, instead of expecting others to anticipate my needs.
I realized that any child can answer the question “why”, but adults make responsible choices and live with their own consequences. From that moment on, I understood that grunting my displeasure, while effective to resolve the immediate issue, failed to enhance my future. I spent the following two years working on changing my own perception of the world and my mindset of how to handle my challenges. I made mistakes and I recovered from regressions, but I understood that I needed to change.
Now I must make decisions about college, decisions which will affect my entire future. I know that I still have much to learn, and, more importantly, I know to ask for help instead of expecting others to anticipate my distress and placate me. My adulthood began when I could answer the question why to myself and regulate my own emotions. My parents shifted from assuming my reasons for my behavior to holding me accountable for my actions. Basically, at the age of sixteen, I grew from a toddler to an adult overnight. I look forward to continuing my transformation.