Autism: Parenting “Failures” and Celebrating Milestones

I remember when our nineteen-year-old daughter, Kaylee, was starting Kindergarten, and we worked tirelessly to teach her to tie her shoes before school started. She aced the skill in no time and went to her first day of school with shiny pink and silver tennis shoes tied by her own hands.

Johnathan, our eight-year-old, mastered the skill at four. As with most things he learned early, he watched and observed and took in while we taught his brother, Scott, and then would come up beside us and just do whatever we were teaching his brother, who is two years his senior.

Scott, though, just couldn’t do it. We tried and tried to teach him until he was frustrated and we were frustrated. After months, we just quit trying. We didn’t see the point in frustrating him and frustrating us over something that he simply, for some reason, could not do.

tae-kwon-doWhen Scott started Tae Kwon Do, we were able to teach him how to tie the first part of his belt, but not the second part (the one that forms the knot). That was probably the most frustrating, because it is the same motions. There wasn’t even a logical reason he couldn’t do it. Even at 10-years-old, he brings me his belt to tie onto him.

Sweatpants that tie at the waist have to be tied loose enough that he can pull them down to use the bathroom at school, but tight enough to keep from falling down on their own.

And — we buy Velcro shoes or Crocs. Period. If they can’t be slipped on or fastened with hooks and loops, we didn’t buy them for him.

I’ll be honest and tell you that this is an area I actually felt like I’d failed in. The older he got and the longer he went without being able to tie, the more I wonder if not forcing the issue would hurt him in the long run.

As with so many “symptoms” of autism spectrum disorder, when we were filling out all the forms and questionnaires in seeking the “official” diagnosis, we were amazed when we came across a section about tying shoes and tying knots. Suddenly, the fact that he couldn’t tie his shoes made sense. Obviously, it’s part of the spectrum like his sleep issues and his wandering away issues. We hadn’t done anything wrong! We hadn’t perpetuated a situation by continually trying to the point of frustration! It must be a developmental thing within the spectrum.

I cannot explain to you the relief we feel as parents as we have constantly received affirmation of symptoms that explain areas where we felt like we failed as parents. Our 10-year-old brilliant child couldn’t tie his shoes, and we quit trying to teach him. We’d added another check next to the failure box.

But once you understand that it isn’t you – your parenting – that it’s his brain and his development, it’s like this box of power is opened up. Okay! It’s autism! It’s a multiple step process for a brain that can only process single steps! How, then, do we come at it in a different angle so that he can learn how to do this in a way that makes sense to him?

For the tying of shoes, it meant turning to his occupational therapist — someone trained to teach children on the spectrum how to tie shoes. And, you know what? It took her about six weeks to teach him. SIX WEEKS.

That little check next to failure just got completely erased.

Here is our boy tying a shoe by himself for the first time, at 10 1/2 years old. Celebrate with us. This is a pretty big deal in our family.


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    • Melissa Walker on November 11, 2016 at 08:53
    • Reply

    Yay Scott!!!!!!!!!

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