(And Questioning Your Definition Of ‘Normal”)
Once upon a time an egg hatched late, giving birth to a penguin with merry dancing feet named Mumble. A penguin who dances is unfortunately an oddity in the penguin community. All penguins are expected to sing instead, since this is deemed crucial – especially to attract a mate.
As Mumble has a terrible singing voice and can’t help shuffling his feet and breaking into a dance, he is viewed as a ‘disabled’ penguin with ‘defective feet’. Mumble can’t integrate into a mainstream school, as his teachers and peers alienate him for not being able to sing even a note of the penguin’s ‘heart song’. Mumble hangs out with vertically challenged penguins, who also haven’t been accepted by the penguin society.
Mumble’s father regrets that he had accidentally dropped Mumble when he was an egg, thereby exposing him to harsh Antarctic winter temperatures. He attributes that to his son’s deviancy from ‘normal’. Thus begins the tale of the critically acclaimed animated film Happy Feet.
Happy Feet though a fantasy tale, beautifully captures what parents go through in real life when a differently enabled child is born to them. Instead of accepting it, many parents find it hard to come to terms with it.
Special educator Armaity Kelawalla says, “It takes special parents to bring up a special child. The term DABDA is used for the five phases parents go through before they can fully accept the impact of having a child with special needs. D is for Denial, A is for Anger, B is for Believing and Bargaining, D is for Depression and A is for Acceptance.”
Reacting From Ignorance
Seeking a religious interpretation to the birth of a differently enabled or even a gifted child may do more harm than good. For instance, the assumption that such children are atoning for their past life’s sins has no scientific basis – yet people often believe it, thereby ‘gifting’ heir gifted child with an undue inferiority complex.
Kaushik Roy, director of the film Apna Asman (inspired by his autistic son) states, “Far from having sinned, these children are gifts to parents. They are pure and unspoilt. They need to be loved. And unconditional love is the best way expressing one’s gratitude to the mighty force that creates and sustains.”
Very often, the mother of a different child is subjected to guilt. Kaushik Roy says, “In most cases, the mother is held responsible for either being too casual about the pregnancy, or for genetic disorders that her family has hidden from the in-laws. The blame game is a way of trying to make the problem someone else’s and not the family’s. This can often lead to marriages breaking up.
Here is where the husband has to play a very strong role in supporting his wife. Very often, this becomes a problem with arranged marriages where the relationship between the couple is still at its mechanical infancy stage when the baby arrives. The husband tends to be overwhelmed by the ill advice of his parents.”
Parents should think of practical ways to help their child as soon as his/her special ability or lack of ‘normal’ abilities is diagnosed. Indian parents invariably rush to godmen and astrologers, who prescribe gemstones and unscientific remedies. According to Kaushik Roy, seeking a miraculous cure only weakens such parents in ‘both bank balance and spirit’.
Responding As An Informed Parent
Armaity advises, “Instead, such parents should update their knowledge on the special ability of their child, identify professionals to help them and follow up with the doctor and therapist regularly. They should bridge the gap between rejection and overprotection and indulgence. If not, the child will develop low self esteem and dependence, loneliness, insecurity, and attention seeking behavior.”
Tips for parents of differently abled children:
• Steer clear of people who offer unsolicited advice
• Seek the company of those who offer real help and empathy
• Focus on the ability rather than on areas the child is perceived to be lacking in
Psychiatrist Dr. Shefali Batra says, “Truly, when we say gifted and special, we mean that these children possess an endowment. For instance, babies with Down’s syndrome are loving and affectionate, excellent with music and calm and relaxed – a lot more than we so-called normal human beings. Some kids have unbelievable rote memory, are excellent with math and logical calculation, outstanding with music or stupendous with creativity and innovation.”
Kaushik Roy’s film Apna Asman, in fact, shows that instead of craving to transform a special child into a ‘normal child’, parents would do best to build on the special child’s innate talents, simultaneously celebrating their offspring’s special innocence. Buddhi, the autistic child protagonist of Apna Asman, becomes a mathematician whiz kid (albeit, a boy with a heart, when he is given an ‘instant cure’ injection). When the parents realize their mistake and nurture their autistic son’s painting skills instead, he reaches the skies.
Copyright © Pallavi Bhattacharya
Pallavi Bhattacharya is a freelance journalist with published articles in Outlook, Rave, Readers’ Digest, India Today Plus, Hindustan Times. She relishes the freedom of expression through her journalistic pursuits, which to her is means of self-discovery and understanding life.
This article may be reprinted with the complete author bio and a live link back to http://www.lovingyourchild.com
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Picture © Warner Brothers