Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Living Outside the Discomfort Zone

At my son's last IEP meeting the district SPED director threw out one of those warm, fuzzy compliments that could penetrate the battle armor of the most game-faced, contrarian parent. For the parent of a special needs kid this is not about making the honor role or the JV squad or the likeliest to become whatever classified aspirations define success in 2010 America. She applauded him for his courage and open-mindedness for trying new challenges.

He, his mom, and me all nodded with the understanding that no new road is traveled on at all without a sense of boldness no matter how pedestrian that adventure may seem -- even if the exploration is testing out his fondness for opening new chapters that are closely affiliated with his core interests. But the explorer role comes with its own set of boundaries and limits. Some are nature, some nurture -- none of them are open to negotiation either in an organized school meeting or in other tests of will and a willingness to grow:

* He can't attempt more than a single test at one time. The inability to tackle multiple steps impairs all follow-up actions before any momentum for change can build, e.g. learning how to drive while simultaneously holding a job in order to save up for a car.

* He will not advance to a next level or willingly expand a commitment. To take a liking to something is to fortify all boundaries with comfort and compliance. Once the comfort zone is set in place, it will not stretch -- no matter how much he enjoys the activity.

* He will not coordinate his own program because that's messing with "the schedule." The schedule refers to the third rail that lies between "the pull" of the status quo and the "push"of his unexplored potential.

The stronger the push, the more resistant the pull has become. It will endure until the day he concludes that passive acceptance is a choice -- not a disability -- and that there is much to make of himself in ways he can't possibly know now. Until that day he will continue to call on girls who string him along because they don't have the gumption to break someone whose heart is as pure as his senses are dull to the slights of nonverbal cues.

That same reluctance to turn him down for a date may well be the same reason the SPED director's praises carry a patronizing ring and the same reason that after a few hours on the road he is confident of passing his road test. That's because he's used to being told that any mental sparks beyond retardation levels are crowning achievements. The truth is that his intelligence is as vast as it is undeveloped. That would not fit within the schedule, comfort zone, or the number of steps it would take to address. In addition to his kindness and expressive self he is also handsome and could be quite a catch -- once the girl catching him is free to be his companion and not his surrogate mother.

It is always going to be easier to step in and save the day than it is to let events running their own course to teach the next class. You don't have to be a helicopter parent to be deaf to the most debilitating phrase we clueless parents ever taught our special needs kids:

"Here. Let me try that..."

That doesn't mean we do it all while they sit idly by. But if we plan their next driving lesson, floor the gas, point the wheel, and fill the tank, it's important that our student drivers assume more of the responsibilities the next cycle through. Completing a task that's 90% pre-finished means beginning the next time at 80% complete, and so on.

Another well-intended but self-defeating lesson is to script them when petitioning on our own behalf. For instance a state agency we've been working with encourages potential employers to take on disabled workers with cash incentives to train and pay them while still pocketing a meaningful margin for their efforts.

Now try putting that into some persuasive talking points as my son re-approaches the dozen or more rejections he got from employers when he inquired about summer jobs back in June. Not only does that mean going off-script the moment a question arises but he is unclear how to propose, advance, or close a deal that would include something as complex and threatening as a 3 or 4 way negotiation that crosses over into each of his discomfort zones.

A simpler more tangible way to focus on an achievable goal is to teach him how to ride mass transit so that getting on by himself on the city bus to community college becomes less an adventure and more one of those things he does. Once we achieve second nature status all those formula-rattling multistep problems can be addressed -- in one less step.

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