Going on 9 to 5

Four months from today, Caleb will turn 9. Not exactly a tween yet, but definitely not a pre-schooler either. Yet in the eyes of family, friends and even strangers (if they spend just 5 minutes with him), Caleb will look and behave for all the world like he’s turning 5 instead of 9!

The truth is that Caleb’s autism and developmental challenges have meant that he’s still generally very ‘kiddish’ in his mannerisms. And yes, he still needs help now from us for his basic daily living skills. These can literally run the “Whole 9-yards”: brushing his teeth, cleaning up after his toilette, feeding him during meal times, or reminding him to cross the road with a careful eye for oncoming traffic. Just to name a few!

In short, he’s in many ways no different from a 5 year old pre-schooler.

It doesn’t help that well-meaning but clueless extended family members and friends, both those who are conscious of his diagnosis and those who aren’t, help reinforce his childish demeanour in how they relate to him. Most of these adults have never dealt with special needs kids, and don’t know enough the importance of challenging these kids to behave more like their peers than their former pre-school pals. And so oftentimes, these same adults end up treating Caleb exactly the way they would treat young, helpless babies and small kids. Some even justify that, precisely because Caleb has autism, he is to be treated differently from others.

I reckon since he’s still a tad small built for someone his age, all the mollycoddling he still gets now seem fine and dandy. However, I doubt it’ll be so when he grows taller and bigger in the next couple of years (and he will). Because these same people who treat him now like he’s 5, will wake up one day two years down the road and suddenly realise that “hey how come Caleb is still acting like a pre-schooler ah?”, as if up until that point they were never aware that anything was amiss.

And when that happens, guess who they will be looking to for answers and immediate solutions, or simply pointing fingers at behind our backs (if not in front of us)?! 

Yep, you guessed it! Caleb’s parents, which of course includes yours truly, the stay-home dad!! I can already hear the whispers: “So how is Kelvin’s staying home full-time helping Caleb. No really, how?”

I can almost imagine the myriad of questions that will spew forth: “Do you need to bring Caleb for more check-ups?” “What?! He’s still wearing diapers at night?! Why?” “Why does he still drool and wear bibs?” “How come he’s not playing well with the other kids his age and doesn’t seem to have any friends his age outside of school?” “Do you want to consider trying alternative medicine?” And on and on and on the questions will roll. 

It would almost seem as if the years so far that these adults have spent relating to him as though he was a pre-schooler stuck in a time-warp, had no part whatsoever to play in helping Caleb develop properly. 

Now I’m not saying that I’m doing a stand-up job right now. On some days, I still interact with him like he was still my little kindie kid, wrestling him playfully to the ground, baby-talking to him, helping him to towel dry after a bath. In all of these I am well aware I need to adjust my methods to be more age-appropriate, though I firmly believe that even parents of neuro-typical kids often forget and end up treating their kids like they were still babies, even when they’re well into their teens! At least that’s how I comfort myself cos I do have a neuro-typical Jaedon that I ‘baby’ every now and then!

But at least I’ve got self-awareness going for me, and will therefore continue to self-correct. That is more than I can say for others who aren’t Caleb’s parents and who don’t spend time daily with him like I do. Despite being well-meaning in most cases (even though they are really well-meaning based more on what they think is right, not what’s actually good for Caleb), the fact remains that they aren’t the ones left “holding the baby” when the crunch and testing comes, and the world asks the obvious question: “Why isn’t Caleb acting his age?”

Just to be clear: I’m not blaming others. I’m really not. Because Caleb isn’t ultimately the responsibility of anyone else but his parents, who are his immediate and most important caregivers.

What I am saying though is that the adage “it takes a village to raise a child” is all too true. For those of you who have to take urgent leave from work cos granny suddenly fell ill and can’t watch your kids today, you know what I mean!

And just to be clear, I’m not saying that I can change people and change the world. I know that I can only change myself. And I will, and have been (since leaving full-time employment earlier this year).

But sometimes, when the going gets really tough, I just want the people around us to cut Caleb and I some slack. 

Help. Don’t Hinder. Ok? And if you really really want to but don’t know how, just ask me.

Better yet, ask Caleb.

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