There was a book I used to read to my son when he was a toddler that told a story about going on a bear hunt. It was a small sturdy book he could easily wrap his chubby dimpled fingers around, with lovely illustrations and a repetitive sing song narrative. At the time, I thought it was just a sweet, short children’s book with a powerful message that when you are on a bear hunt, no matter what obstacle you encounter and no matter how much easier it would be to go around it, under it or even over it, you must go through it. I honestly cannot remember how it ends, which is perfect because now that my son is 20, and still facing many challenges, I find myself saying, sorry my boy, but there is no way around this because you are on a bear hunt.
He was diagnosed before the age of 2 years old amidst a sea of acronyms, ASDPDDNOS. Like many whose child has been given a diagnosis, I have been swimming in a sea of alphabet soup ever since. Everything is an acronym!
Any parent given that diagnosis learns quickly to pick their battles because there are so very many challenges, questions and fears and more questions. Most children with autism have a terrible time managing discomfort, frustration, transitions, changes in routine and any ambiguity. It is all very intense and just when you think you have something figured out, it changes, and you do not know anything all over again.
He struggled to eat. He struggled to sleep. He struggled to talk, to organize his thoughts. He was on sensory overload and would meltdown for no apparent reason or run circles around the house pushing the furniture seeking sensory data because very little was getting through and his brain and body were desperate for information that he was not able to process.
You watch them struggle and your instinct is to soothe and to make it all better. To stop the crying and the screaming and the head banging and hair pulling. You make jokes that he could open a moving company since the furniture was never in the same place, but at night, in the dark, you wonder, “What will happen to my son?”
When they are babies, toddlers and even in elementary school, it is especially hard to resist the instinct to surround them in a bubble and keep them there, close where you can be certain they are safe. But how do you protect them from the cruelties and messiness of life and prepare them for the inevitable? You will not always be there.
Every child is unique and no one strategy will work for any two children. Here is what I learned about that line between protection and preparation.
Be brave and stay the course.
Take baby steps.
Embrace mistakes and transform them into learning experiences.
Teach them to fall and recover and applaud those moments.
When you see them ordering the world, lining up letters, crayons put in rainbow order, or a tower of blocks standing tall, look for opportunities to make a game out of making a mess or mixing things up.
Say silly and outrageous things to get their attention and teach them to recognize that sometimes things just do not make sense. Silly is ok.
I learned from that children’s book that life is a bear hunt. That message has served us well. There are some things you just cannot get around. If you want to simultaneously protect your child and prepare your child to live in the world, that is just the hard truth.
I am not suggesting that you deliberately escalate your child, but do not fix everything for them. In retrospect, it seems that it would have been so much easier if I could have kept his letters, his rainbow colors, his world, orderly and predictable, but I decided early on that was unsustainable and he deserved more. Honestly, I still question whether I push too hard and cause more problems than I solve?
I am so grateful for the story of the bear hunt. It is not about hunting, which I abhor, it is about how we teach our children to approach the journey. Walking the line between protection and preparation is not easy.
Today, my son understands why when he wants to turn away from a challenge or something he perceives as too much for him, I remind him he is on a bear hunt. I wait the three extra processing beats he takes and hear him exhale with a heavy sigh, “I know”. At that moment it is clear he is annoyed, but he is willing to go through it.