I remember the first time someone said: “what’s wrong with your son”. I think my face, turning white, then splotchy red with anger, told him that what he’d said was not the right thing to say.
“I just mean…” he said, ignoring my body language, shoulders already carrying me away from him. “Why does he make that noise? How old is he?”
“How old is he?” is a question I wish we could ban. There’s no good answer. If I say his age he’ll be too old to be doing that or too young to be doing this…
And the helpful advice will begin like “Well, at that age, they don’t need to be able to do that!” or “Wow, I couldn’t handle my kid still being in nappies at that age, we just said no way at three to nappies”.
How old is he when he can’t make sentences?
How old is she when she can’t make eye contact?
How old are they when loud noises hurt and the humming starts?
How old is he when he can’t regulate his voice and everything is yelling?
Ages should be stages. A continuum where all children learn at different times in different ways and we support them no matter what.
It was my kindergarten that taught me to let go of milestones and ages. If only everyone had their own kindergarten teacher in their back pocket, gently telling them to ignore the endless advice and focus.
Focus on this: Your child may struggle to speak but you can hear him in his dancing. You can hear him in his smile when he picks up a tambourine. You can hear him when he traces the line of your chin and nuzzles beneath it.
When you stand watching, and you begin to compare, begin to look at why your child doesn’t have children playing with him, when you watch as your child hums away in her own little world – you need someone to stand with you.
But you also need someone to say: They’re happy. This is hard. There’s a grieving period, a fight you didn’t sign up for that you now have to have with a complex system that isn’t well-resourced or funded. But look: They’re happy. Right now.
Battles will come, battles will go. It takes so much time and energy.
See what others see when it’s love – love for your child’s different ways of taking on the world. See how they hum to concentrate – how clever they are! How smart their brains are to know this is what they need to be able to focus.
See their communication when it’s not just limited to language. Open your mind to new ways of talking to each other.
The vocabulary you’ve learned might not be the one you expected to learn – dyspraxia, auditory processing, SLI, PDD-NOS, IEPs, PECs, DDTs, OT, SLT, PT. But treat it as knowledge for your basket.
And one day you’ll be seen for all you do – rushing to appointments, doing “homework”, cutting out squares with pictures of milk and cereal on them, and lying awake at night wondering how you’ll get through.
You’re not alone in this. There are so many parents who are looking at their children and thinking:
Don’t ask me how old he is. Ask me about his favourite song.
Don’t ask me how old she is. Ask me about how when it rains she loves the sound and she wants to run out and dance in it.
When my child is struggling, help me. Don’t ask me how old he is.
When my child is hurting, be there for her. Don’t ask me how old she is.
Stop looking at children as other and journey with parents together – with love, compassion, and understanding.
Through every age. And stage.