The ‘grass is greener on the other side’ syndrome is not something only autism parents have. Every parent at some point has probably looked at someone else’s child and thought ‘gee I wish my child did that’. Our brain always zeroes in on all the things our kids can’t do and that other kid can do it so easily.
Only a few days ago my husband and I took Michael to the park. While he spent his entire time on the swing, which is quite normal, there was another little boy there. He showed me how good he was at figuring out the complicated bits of the monkey bars and I taught him all about bush turkeys (we have a lot of them in my area). At one point he led me to the other end of the park to show me the exercise equipment.
His mum, I should add, was sitting on a bench somewhere and paid no attention to him whatsoever. Even when we left her field of vision. No cares that this random stranger was walking off with her son. No encouragement of his language, or his play skills.
And while I enjoyed talking to her little boy, I couldn’t help but feel the usual twinge. She was doing nothing except providing food and shelter and very minimal oversight, (which is actually quite a lot, granted) and yet her child will grow up, have friends, get a job, and live an independent life. I could jump out of my skin every time Michael pointed at something and hire teams of fantastic therapists, yet there are serious doubts that he would be able to do even half of that.
I thought about how easy it would be to connect and find joy in a child like that. Someone you can share the magic of the world with. Someone that you can teach so easily and who will probably have many friends.
Many parents look at other people’s well-behaved cherubs while their child is behaving badly and think ‘what if’.
But we suffer more from this ‘grass is greener’ syndrome because our kids might throw ten times more tantrums and say ‘I love you’ ten times less (or not at all). Because we might be looking after our kids way past the point when other parents have their kids looking after them. To some extent this is unavoidable. We’re only human.
Connections Need To Be Worked On
Michael and I were lucky. We had a connection immediately, from birth. It was a tough birth, an induction followed by a 16 hour labour followed by an emergency caesarean when he started showing signs of distress. Then while Michael had to go to the special care unit for a few days, I had to go to the wrong floor of the hospital because it had actually run out of rooms in the maternity ward. I had to express colostrum, which is probably one of the more painful things that can happen to you. It was not what you would call an auspicious beginning to our relationship.
But Michael and I totally fell in love. Despite the constant screaming, the colic, the constant need for movement, the fact that he fell asleep for the night only after two hours of screaming/rocking. Despite the fact that he refused to take a dummy, despite the fact that during the day he only slept if he was hanging off me in a sling, despite the asthma attacks and allergies that made every cold and every feed a special struggle. That’s a lot of despites, I know. But I enjoyed Michael very much. Every time I looked at his little face it would hit me all over again, just how much I loved this little boy and how lucky I was he was with me.
Sometimes, just look at his face
I was very lucky in many ways. Michael allowed me to breastfeed him and he loved cuddles and hugs (only from me, but I more than covered the amount of hugs and kisses he needed). He smiled at me, played peekaboo with me, and was very obviously incredibly happy when I was there. It was a lot of pressure, because he was also very obviously very unhappy when he was with anyone else, but it was also very special.
And I have always clung on to that. Through every diagnosis, and every difficulty, I clung onto the happiness that I had just from looking at his face. I did it a lot for the first six months after diagnosis. If I felt a ‘grass is greener’ episode creeping up, I would just look at his big blue eyes with the impossible eyelashes and it would leave.
Unhappiness is comparative
Other parents have also got different ways of dealing with the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome.
Some parents start to look happier about a year after diagnosis and when they chat in the waiting rooms share all the amazing progress their child has made.
And other parents do not. They sit there looking dejected, year after year. They trade stories about how worried they are and how stressed they are all the time. How glad they are that they had another child before the diagnosis that is neurotypical so they get to experience that.
Both reactions are fairly typical. And you would think from looking at this that maybe the first group of parents are just getting a better ‘result’. Maybe their children are learning faster, are gaining more skills and making more progress. Or maybe their kids had more skills and less need for help to begin with. The first group of parents are the ones with the kids that have higher IQs and less behaviours, you would think.
And sometimes you’re right. It can be very hard to be upbeat when you have been doing every intervention for two years and your child still doesn’t look at you, can’t play with anything, can’t communicate, and spends most of their time crying. I can only imagine how hard this must be.
Do you notice the good or the bad?
But most cases are not like this. In my experience, the way the two groups of parents react after a period of time has very little to do with results or how high their child’s measurable IQ is. It is more about what they notice. The good or the bad.
I have been the parent proudly talking about how my son has learned to go up and down stairs by himself, at the age of three. While the parent next to me is absolutely despondent that her daughter is only average academically since her whole family have always been at the top of the class.
I must admit I sometimes get frustrated with these parents. They spend so much time comparing and noticing the things their child can’t do that they are completely missing the things they can do.
The ‘ideal child’ does not really exist
But at the same time I know that if Michael didn’t have so many special needs but was merely an average student, I would probably be very upset about that too. Probably just as upset. If I’m going to be completely honest, the before-Michael me would be upset if a child of mine got under 99 in the HSC.
Most parents have an ‘ideal child’ in their heads and most children will fail to measure up to that. Probably many times. The way the relationship goes at that point, will depend on how quickly we as parents stop measuring our children against an ideal child and start to love them as they are. Because that ‘ideal child’ is not about them anyway – it’s about what we wish we had done and things we wished we had achieved. And that is seriously not our children’s problem.
To deal with this ‘grass is greener’ syndrome, most people advise you to stop comparing. They say that is what is causing the unhappiness. And that is partially true.
if you’re going to compare, compare everything
But I think it’s impossible to stop comparing. It is part of being human and you can’t stamp it out in yourself. What I do instead that helps me, is I compare MORE. I don’t just compare Michael when I see kids doing things he can’t do. I think that is the mistake. Parents romanticize neurotypical children and only look to compare at the time that they are doing something particularly awesome. When they are laughing and playing with their cousins. Or when they are sitting quietly with their parents reading.
So the challenge I set myself a year ago, when I was feeling down about Michael, was to notice EVERYTHING. To compare at all times. Because neurotypical children can be pretty annoying self-centered little brats. The real children, not the ‘ideal’ ones we have in our heads. They’re only human too.
Notice Every Good Thing
Another trick is to notice every good thing your child does. One of my favourite things about ABA is how much emphasis there is on rewarding good behaviour and tracking every little improvement. It is so optimistic. And that means I really look for the good all the time. I have to watch my child and think about how wonderful they are that they can sit still for five minutes now, or that they followed instructions, or waved hello.
This by the way is not a license to think about how awful other children are. It’s not about negatives. It’s about seeing the positives in your own child. Sometimes you just need to see that others aren’t perfect either, to understand that yours is pretty fantastic.
So I might see another child crying because he isn’t getting what he wants at a toy store. And I’m not judging them for doing so or lecturing the parents. That is not the point of the exercise. But it is an opportunity to notice that Michael is happily sitting in his pram looking around. Partially because he is a well behaved little boy and we have taught him that tantrums will never get him what he wants anyway. And partially it’s an upside to his lack of interest in toys.
Or I might be at a busy playground and notice the way all the bigger kids are bullying the younger ones. They’re rushing in ahead of the little ones, pushing in whenever there’s a line, going up the slide when someone is trying to come down. Taking over every fun toy or piece of equipment and then going so fast that the little ones don’t have a chance. A good playground is an eat or be eaten kind of place, especially on the weekend! Honestly often when I am around kids I think they would all benefit from some behavior modification.
Consciously look for achievements at every moment
But Michael doesn’t do that. He waits in line, he doesn’t push in, and he would never push someone aside to get to the slide or the swing faster. If he is on some equipment, he goes slowly and lets other go ahead. Michael is a little angel that is happy just to stand in a corner and carefully watch the other kids having fun. Or wait his turn on the flying fox or the swing, just like he has been practicing in therapy.
At the start all these techniques were a conscious effort. When he was a baby I would consciously focus on the cuddles and the hugs. When he grew older I did the same thing – just look for the happy smiles and the love, because the tantrums were too obvious. It kept us close, and helped our relationship stay strong through the bad times.
But these days they are automatic. I see my little one going into unfamiliar situations and handling them better than I do. Or I see his sunny, happy-go-lucky nature and actually feel a little jealous that he sees so much more good in the world than I do and never notices the bad. Unless someone steals his iPad of course.