Quiet Conversations, Advocacy and Vulnerability

I went into my son’s school today. He’s in his second week of high school and he’s finding it very overwhelming. The transition from primary school to high school is ginormous, especially for a kid with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder. It hasn’t been all bad and there have definitely been some high points but this morning he just didn’t want to go. I’m all for mental health days but I felt that there was an issue that needed sorting out. He had a problem and he wasn’t feeling heard and I knew that he needed some support to make himself heard. It doesn’t matter how many times I do this I always feel awkward, as though I am being too precious, asking for too much.

You see, no one taught me how to advocate for my special needs child. Scratch that...no one taught me how to advocate for my kids, full stop. Or how to advocate for myself. My mum didn’t know how to advocate for her children or for herself. We are a family of silent endurers. Grin and bear it. That’s what we do. I learned from a very early age that the squeaky wheel doesn’t get the oil, the squeaky wheel is rude and obnoxious and embarrassing everybody by causing a scene. The squeaky wheel not only doesn’t get the oil but also ruins it for everyone else. Keep your needs and your discontent to yourself, I learned, or everyone will miss out and then they’ll hate you. Sounds harsh but that’s how I remember it.

Motherhood changed me. It called me to learn and grow.

Forcing my kids to learn silent endurance in the face of misery wasn’t an option for me. I wanted them to have a voice. To speak up for themselves, and to know that I would always have their backs. Even when they’re in the wrong, I want them to know that they can come to me and we will work it out together. I want them to be resilient, capable and confident but in a way that isn’t afraid to ask for help. More importantly, I want them to have the skills to do this for themselves when I’m not around. I can’t always be there, you know, I’ve got stuff to do, people. Books to read and housework to procrastinate. My nap won’t happen by itself.

But it’s icky, dealing with all these suppressed emotions, wanting to be strong for your child but scared that you’ll just make it worse. Learning how to be that mum, the one who talks to teachers, principals and school administrators and asks for help, is hard. But I can honestly say that it’s so worth it. This morning proved it to me yet again. The staff at his school are lovely, supportive and encouraging. With me there to support him, my son was able to tell them the issue and they responded with empathy and a spirit of collaboration, a willingness to work through it together. Of course I got teary. I can’t seem to help it. Kindness does that to me. Ugh!

Being your child’s advocate might not come naturally to you, if you never learned it as a child, it might feel a lot like conflict. Don’t let that stop you from trying, because, if I have any wisdom about advocacy it’s this...advocacy doesn’t have to be a confrontation, with angry words, hurt feelings and unmet needs. I’ve discovered that advocacy is mostly about engaging in quiet conversations, listening to all sides, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and being willing to experiment with solutions. You might not get it right the first time, but be patient with the process and be willing to try again.

Teachers, principals, school administrators are humans too. And mostly I’ve found that they want the same thing as I do...to help my child to be resilient, capable, confident and never afraid to ask for help.