Thursday, August 4, 2011

Choosing Wise Words: Advice from Judge Judy

Being at home has led me to watching way more daytime TV than I care to admit to.  But sometimes I stumble across something worthwhile, which makes me feel a little better about my viewing choices.  Judge Judy is one of those shows.  And I can watch it with the kids in the room, because Judge Judy says innocent things like, "You, Sir, are a nincompoop," which makes Seth laugh hysterically and walk around repeating that line for the rest of the day.

Yesterday I was watching Judge Judy while I folded the ten million loads of laundry that I finally got around to folding.  She had your typical deadbeats and dummies on, then the soundbite for the next segment played before the commercial.  It had a young mother saying, "Ma'am, my son is severely autistic," with the equally young dad interrupting her to say, "Judge, she always says that but I just don't buy it."  My interest was piqued. 

During the commercial, my mind raced back to those days before and immediately after Munchkin's diagnosis.  As I sat remembering, the show came back on and I watched the drama unfold, laundry forgotten in my lap.

The case was about dental bills that dad refused to pay for a five-year-old boy.  As Judy berated mom for letting her child's teeth rot to the point that he needed thousands of dollars worth of dental work, mom interjected with the fact that her son was autistic, and dad argued with his point.  And I thought, "Oh, that poor mom!  She's going through so much, and dad is such a jerk!"  Then Judge Judy starts into mom...

"Why do you say he's severely autistic?"  Well, I had him tested.  "Do you have a copy of the test results?"  Yes, right here...  (As she looks them over...)  "Does he speak?  Is he verbal?"  Well, yes.  "Does he dress himself?  Feed himself?"  Well, he needs a little help dressing.  "Does he make eye contact?  Show affection?"  Yes, but...  "Is he in school?  Where does he go to school?"  Dad speaks up: "He goes to the public school.  He's in a regular kindergarten class.  He's extremely intelligent and doing fine there."  Mom says, "Well, he has an aide."  Judge Judy yells, "Well lots of kids have an aide!  That doesn't make him severely autistic!"

Now, at the start of all this, my heart was going out to the sobbing mother.  She explained how he was just diagnosed, but she's always known something was different about her son.  She said that dad is in denial and won't support her or him.  That he fights her about therapy and all that.  I was remembering when Munchkin was first diagnosed, and my hubby was less than on board (though not at all to the extreme of this deadbeat dad!)  But as Judge Judy continued to question her, I immediately saw where this was going--this was not a "severely autistic" child and mom was clearly trying to either, a: paint him in that light to better win her case, or b: come to terms with her child's diagnosis and taking the extreme view.

Yeah, I related to this too.  When Munchkin received his diagnosis of PDD-nos, I immediately (after consulting Google) went through a "God help me, my child has autism" period.  I convinced myself that all my hopes and dreams for this child were out the window, down the drain, over the moon...He would obviously never work, never get married, and live with us until we died and left him with no one to care for him.  Luckily, that period was short-lived, because anyone who knows Munchkin will tell you that this is the furthest thing from the truth!  This kid is going to do amazing things with his life, not in spite of his differing abilities, but more likely because of them!!!

Back to Judy.  She consulted the diagnostic papers in front of her and said what I was yelling at the TV by now, "Ma'am, it says her your child's diagnosis is PDD-nos."  Yes, that's on the autism spectrum.  "I know it is!  But that's not severely autistic!"  (Mom crying openly now.)  But everything is so hard for him!  And dad won't support me!

Then Judge Judy said something very profound.  I hope the mom was really listening, because it will make all the difference in how she takes the rest of her journey with her son.  She said, (and I paraphrase,)

"You need to be careful with your words.  Especially when describing your son.  Lots of kids with this diagnosis outgrow their symptoms by eight or nine years old.  What you are told about a child at 18 months, a year, five years, is not necessarily going to follow them for life.  But your words will."

She acknowledged then that mom was in a difficult place with coming to terms with a new diagnosis, and urged her to do everything she could for her son, and not make it worse for him than it really was.  Then she told dad to step up, support mom and their son in this journey, and pay the dental bills.  (Cheers!!!)

I don't know what the next case was about, because I was still thinking about this one as I continued to fold laundry.  As always, Judge Judy said what needed to be said without mincing words.  I wish someone had been so bold with me, but I did come to the same conclusion on my own, so I guess it's all just part of the grieving process and works out in the end.

I think her advice is Pure Genius.  The labels we assign to our kids will follow them for life.  The emotion we put behind those labels will follow them.  The shame or pride we put behind those labels will follow them.  With special needs children, it's so easy to become fatalistic in our thinking.  And I don't think it's just a one-time thing you go through in the early stages of coming to terms with their diagnosis.  No, I think it continues to pop up in our thinking at different stages of their life.

My child is going to be the victim of bullies.  It's inevitable.  He'll never have any friends.
My child will never learn to drive.  He'll be the only one who doesn't get his license.
No one will ever want to date my child.  She'll never go to the prom.
I'll never get grandkids.  My child will never grow up and get married and have kids.

Maybe it's true for some people.  I know children who really will never drive, or date, or have kids.  Their parents, perhaps, are justified in feeling fatalistic and defeated.  (Though most of them don't.  Most of them consider it a privilege to have been given this special child to love and care for until God calls them or the child home.  These are my heroes.)  But I can't be negative in my thoughts.  Munchkin will always be a little quirky.  But I can't limit him by his quirks.  His diagnosis is not a sentence handed down by the Judge.  There's no limit to what he can accomplish!

No, I will choose my words carefully.  My boy is nothing short of amazing.  That's the best word I can choose for him!  He's amazing.  A miracle.  My boy.

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