My husband and I were discussing the summer schedule and our son’s swim team practice. “The team is on break, because the coaches are doing the lifeguard training program,” I said.
“I would like him to do that. I think lifeguarding would be good for Grant,” Darrin said.
“He can’t.” I said, thinking of how our son can’t sit still and his pacing around and talking to himself as he plays out a story in his head. The current state of driving lessons, he has all the technical skills of driving and much of the muscle memory, but he needs someone in the car to periodically remind him to pay attention. Just this morning the brake lights came on in the car in front of us. My son made no move to slow down. I said “Brake.” Still no slowing. I sharply said, “Brake!” I swear I could almost hear the audible sound of his attention snapping back to the present, real world, “Oh, right. Sorry.” And only then did he slow down.
“He can do anything he sets his mind to,” my husband replied.
I get what he means. Our kid has accomplished many things that were in question when he got his Autism diagnosis at age 4. He speaks perfectly fine (though to the ear of someone who knows folks on the spectrum there are aspects to his speech that give away his not-so-secret identity). He can ride a bike, drive (sort of), play viola and clarinet, and has taught himself to play the piano. He is an honors student, taking honors classes, with a minimal amount of accommodation. He went on the seventh grade Washington D.C. trip with the other kids, never went missing, never missed a bus, and never lost his camera or cell phone. He’s often more capable than I expect.
While our son is neurodivergent, he is in the shallow, easier end of a large, scary wave pool. It’s a pool we are presently in no risk of drowning in. Our footing is firmly on the bottom. We are only periodically disbalanced by unexpected waves. But we spent his early years so deep in that pool that we could only gasp for air as we bobbed up and down. The cost of medications, speech therapists, occupational therapists, pediatric neurologists, daycare, early intervention preschool (which was only a few hours a week), social skills play groups, play therapy, music therapy, and every activity we put him in to help (from Boy Scouts to Therapeutic Horseback riding), put us at risk of drowning. We survived that by managing expectations and picking our battles.
My husband saying “he can do anything” made me angry, which is strange. If a teacher had told me he “can’t do” something, I would push back. So why was my husband’s insistence that being a lifeguard was a possibility for our son making me annoyed? Was it just that I was caught out being ableist, assuming he was unable to do a task only because he is different from other people?
I’m dyslexic. It’s a funny thing for a writer to be, I know. Before the advent of spell checking software and word processors, I’m fairly certain I would have never been able to be a writer. When I was young, audio books were abridged monstrosities, but when I was in high school unabridged books on tape started to become more widely available. I first met the clever Miss Jane Austen in audio format and a wide range of authors and genres were thrown open to me as audio books became more available over the decades. Many of the barriers to being a writer were lowered for me. However, I can’t spell. Spell check software gets me about fifty percent of the way. Text-to-speech software helps me find that I’ve selected the wrong correct spelling for a word and changed the meaning of a sentence. (I once wrote “Thank you for your constipation, a reprehensive will be in contact shortly.”) What I cannot do, no matter how hard I study, no matter how hard I try, is win a spelling bee. I would most likely fail on the first word. A neurotypical eight grader is going to beat my ass every time. I’m fairly certain a sixth grader would beat me. Ok, maybe a fourth grader. Seriously, words that I can rarely spell correctly include calendar, neurological, and exercise. Exercise is an example of one that I spell so atypically that the computer spell checker throws up its hands and stomps off muttering under its breath.
Being neurodivergent is a pain in two temperatures: too cold, people not believing you can do things, and too hot, people demanding that your disability can be overcome if you just try harder. I’ve had teachers who punished the entire class for my failure to get through a reading assignment fast enough. I carry a lot of scars from both and I’m ever questioning if I’m expecting too little or too much of my son.
I took the discussion of lifeguarding, and if the word “can’t” is ok or not, to the person in the best position to judge. I asked my son. My husband’s “rule” of parenting is to never ask his son to get off the computer before asking him what he’s working on or playing. My rule is to have no discussions about my son, without my son. I’m lucky in that sense. He doesn’t take these discussions emotionally. He’s a happy kid and happy to talk frankly (sometimes painfully frankly). I outlined the discussion his father and I had had and asked, “Should you be a lifeguard?”
His answer was a clear no.
We circled back around to what was really bothering me, “Was I wrong to use the word can’t?”
He thought for a moment and then said, “I would rather you say, ‘Can’t yet.’” One little word: yet. It’s a lovely word, full of hope while still being honest about current realities. Right now my son is too much in his own head to be responsible for the lives of others. A year from now might be different. The solution for later might be working for it. It might be just maturing more. It might be some magic new treatment that gives my son a doorway into a more typical experience, if he wants it. Perhaps a technology will come along that changes the requirement for focus or helps him keep his focus on the people frolicking in the water. There is so much power in the word “yet.”
When I was young I couldn’t be a writer yet. That changed. I’m dyslexic and I can’t win a spelling bee… yet.