Being a parent of a child with autism, I’m used to certain manner in which we (i.e., my son and I) do things. For example, restaurant dining usually involves getting up and wandering around with my son, singing songs of the table, and having conversations in which I talk to and answer for my son. To other patrons this probably looks a bit odd. (In my experience servers and patrons are very understanding and make all sorts of accommodations for us.)
This last week we went out for fries after an afternoon of hiking. We went to a restaurant we’d been to before and as before, arrived there about 3 p.m. The restaurant is usually empty around this time (save for a few people there for coffee) but on this visit there were several people eating, including a mom with her two children. We went about our usual routine but I couldn’t help but notice how the other family talked, ate, and behaved. I didn’t feel any jealousy, self-pity, or frustration. (At one time, when my son was first diagnosed, these were the only emotions I felt). I just kind of realized that, at least for the last while, I had forgotten how a “typical” kid does things, and hence how a typical parent and child interact and do things like eat at a restaurant.
We typically measure what is normal relative to a benchmark. A large literature in behavioral economics (e.g., prospect theory, the theory of mental accounting, and insights from research on subjective well-being) has demonstrated this time and time again. I guess this is part of the reason why children without special needs are referred to as “typical” rather than “normal”. Our dining experience made me recognize (again) how important interacting with others, observing the world, and taking advantage of the opportunities social interactions present are in working with my child. By observing these things and taking advantage of these opportunities, I have a reference of what is typical. This helps me challenge and push my son to behaving “typically” and being more independent. Having challenges in one’s life (e.g., an autistic child) can naturally breed a sense of isolation and motivate behavior that separates you from others. Not only is this bad to the well-being of a caregiver, but it can be bad for the therapy design and well-being of a child.