Five (un)easy pieces

David Brent, Manager/Comedian/Philosopher

David Brent, Manager/Comedian/Philosopher

I recently found myself in a situation that reminded me of one of my favourite David Brent moments (and there are many) from The Office.

Brent (played by Ricky Gervais with depths of pathos unseen since the days of W.C. Fields) is told by his boss, Jennifer Taylor-Clarke, that Wernham Hogg is under a financial cloud.

Changes to the Slough branch will need to be made in the lead up to an internal merger.

It’s serious business, but Brent has his mind on other things – like hiring a new forklift driver and setting Dawn the receptionist up in front of a new co-worker to think she has been fired.

All in a day’s work on the best cringe-comedy series ever made.

By episode two, Jennifer is back to find out what changes or cuts Brent has made.

“Can you give me, let’s say, five practical changes that you’ve actually made?”, she quite reasonably asks.

The question elicits that now-familiar flicker of panic across Brent’s face when under actual work pressure.

Then the strategy of the uber-procrastinator: pause, repeat the question back to the person and try to change the rules.

“Five changes? Let me give you three, and then another two if you need ‘em….. Efficiency, turnover, profitability…”

Brent’s pathetic attempt to offer up ‘three things’ when only five would do always makes me and my husband laugh so hard. We quote it endlessly and, I’m sure, annoyingly to anyone not familiar with the series.

But some days I feel Brent’s obvious pain at being cornered by a question requiring a deeper response or by an answer that just doesn’t come as easily as I would like.

One such occasion struck me a few weeks ago when I was sitting around a table with the other participants in a program called ‘Signposts for building better behaviour’, designed for parents of children with a disability.

My daughter Amelia attends a primary school for the deaf which has organised for a small number of families to access this impressive six-week program.

We are learning more about why our children – all of whom have multiple special needs – behave the way they do, develop better strategies for managing their behaviour and perhaps, fingers and toes tightly crossed until the circulation cuts off, prevent such challenging behaviours down the track.

There’s no black magic here. No sacrificial lambs taken out the back and slaughtered at midnight to appease the mighty parenting gods. Nope, it’s good old fashioned practical advice backed by sound research.

But that doesn’t mean it’s short on, dare I say it, Oprah-style light-bulb moments.

Take this exercise as an example. We were sitting around talking about how to describe our child’s behaviour. Not just generic terms like ‘naughty’ but using greater detail such as, “Amelia sat on her Dad’s lap and repeatedly hit him over the head and scratched his face.” You get the Tokyo drift.

We could have riffed all day about the bad stuff, the negative tales, the images of difficulty, the specific definitions of what is hard.

Then, and here comes the Jennifer Taylor-Clarke spinner, write down five things your child has done recently that you LIKE.

Cue crickets.

I was asked to name five things, five easy pieces that Amelia has delighted me with, and for more than a minute I was completely flummoxed.

I have never felt more like quoting David Brent in my life.

We were all in the same, rocky boat, me and the other parents. I looked across the table at one Mum whose wonderful son has similar challenges to Amelia and we shared a rueful smile. That we like, huh? This was going to be tough.

But in truth, once you switch your mind on to the positives, once you sift out the detritus that sits on the surface all day polluting your thoughts with grim despair, you find that you can’t stop accentuating the things you like.

My blue pen scratched across my workbook until the words were flying onto the page. What do I like? It turns out I like plenty:

  1. Amelia slept until 7am this morning;
  2. Amelia gave us a big hug and said ‘I love you’;
  3. Amelia taught me how to sign ‘Cinderella’;
  4. Amelia did not scream when I said no to more breakfast;
  5. Amelia played by herself in her trampoline for 20 minutes.
Growing stronger and more confident everyday

Growing stronger and more confident everyday

I love the way the program asked us to do this exercise. It had multiple purposes but its real gift to me was the time and space to sit and think about the many things Amelia has done recently that I like. That make me do little fist-pumps of celebration when no-one is looking.

When I look at my list I see how much progress she has made. Living inside the all-encompassing bubble that surrounds families raising a child with special needs, it can be difficult to notice progress and development.

You only feel weight and pressure and, frankly, under-equipped to raise such a complex person who needs so much love and support.

It is unfortunately too easy to forget to celebrate the good things, the small efforts that are a sign of better times to come.

When I went home, my positive reflections travelled with me and they stuck around.

‘Signposts’ is not offering some kind of silver bullet solution to the ever-vexed experience of parenting any child, least of all someone like Amelia, an alpha girl who is both deaf and on the autism spectrum.

Yet it’s no less revolutionary in my mind. Now, when I sit down at the end of another long day and I think back on how it all went with Amelia, I’m just as likely to start making a mental note of the things she did that I liked, instead of a black list of ‘bad things’.

But more than that, in the moment I am now able to recognise those pleasing things and tell her right then how helpful she is, how clever, how kind or how funny.

I see the impact of my words on Amelia’s shining face; I haven’t starved her of positive feedback but her obvious hunger for more has made me rethink what my child needs on a daily basis.

So when Amelia asks me what she is good at or why she won a prize at school for being responsible (last week’s massive score), I will never again be lost for words. I’ll just take a variation on the Brent route and say, baby, I’ll give you three things and then a million more if you want ‘em.

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Deaf like me

Amelia, signing me a tale of whimsy

Amelia, signing me a tale of whimsy

One of the most exhilarating and scary things about being a parent is watching your child grow and begin to understand more and more about who they are and how they fit (or don’t) into the world around them.

In the beginning, the concept of ‘who they are’ is largely defined by parental opinion and self-indulgent projections such as ‘oh, she has my eyes’, or ‘she’s strong-willed like her Mum’. She is in the world but she’s not her own person yet.

But at some stage, that child will break the shackles of the prescriptive parental narrator and strike out on their own path, discovering ‘who they really are’ on their own terms.

For us, that process is made even more complex by the fact that aside from personality traits, quirks and individual preferences, our five year old Amelia’s life has had some surprise storylines that she is only starting to uncover for herself.

She is deaf. She is also on the autism spectrum. These are weighty facts about our daughter that have taken us years to deal with and understand. We’re far from reconciled to their impact on her life and ours.

For Amelia, the journey to self-discovery is very much at its genesis. About her deafness, she knows that without her hearing aids she can’t hear music, television or clear voices.

In this, she has made an important connection between her hearing loss and the technology she uses to access sound and the world around her.

Then a few months ago, she referred to a teacher at her school as ‘deaf’ in speech and sign but when I gently pressed her on what the word meant, she was unable to explain.

No doubt at Amelia’s school for the deaf she sees, hears and signs the word deaf quite a lot, but it has understandably remained an abstract concept for her. She uses it as a label for people the way she might say “that man is old”, or “my friend is cheeky”.

I hold my breath a bit during these interactions with her because each time I’m waiting to see if the penny has truly dropped. You know, the day she finally asks me about her deafness, not just some vague, remote concept.

I’m also hyper-conscious about not forcing the realisation onto her, before she is ready. It’s one thing to learn that your daughter is deaf and to try and assimilate that word and its meaning into your own sense of their identity.

But this part of her story is not mine to tell or explain. It’s not my right to telegraph such an important fact about who she is. For once, I have to just shut up, listen and wait until Amelia works it out for herself.

Like yesterday, when she came home from school and spotted a picture of a toddler with hearing aids in a newsletter sitting on the kitchen bench. The conversation went like this:

“Mum, the baby has hearing aids like me…”

“Yes, he does have hearing aids”, I said.

“Mmmm”, Amelia pondered for a second and then said and signed, “I’m deaf”.

As usual, I held my breath for a few seconds and then said in a neutral tone, “Are you deaf? Show me the sign again Amelia?”

She signed ‘deaf’ once more. I softly asked, “And what is deaf, Amelia?” She didn’t say.

Then I asked, “Who else is deaf, Amelia?” to test her understanding and she began to list the names of her classmates, all of whom are deaf.

And then quick as a flash she broke the spell that seemed to hang over our chat for a minute and ran off in pursuit of another game and the brief moment of self-realisation came to an end. I exhaled a long, slow breath and smiled.

I’m not sure how much closer she is to understanding what it means to be deaf but it felt like a big deal to me, the first time my girl said that she was deaf. It is no longer an abstract concept that lives outside of her experience or a random label applied to somebody else.

Amelia has begun to comprehend more about who she is, only part of which is being a deaf child. I am sure that once the penny really drops there will be stages when she has different feelings about what deafness (and ASD) mean to her identity. To her sense of self.

But whether it’s a heads or tails proposition, my only job is to hold her hand as I always have and listen and answer her questions with absolute honesty. Like when she asks me if I’m deaf and I have to say no even though I secretly wish I could lie and pretend we are the same.