Why I’ll Never Teach My Children About Stranger Danger

stranger dangerWe hear it all the time: “It’s just not the same world out there anymore.” The world is supposedly a much scarier and more threatening place than the days of old when we would ride our bikes to the store with no parents in sight and blow our allowance money on candy and silly knick knacks with hardly a care. “We know better now,” we’re told. Keep a close eye on your kids at all times. Be aware of the dangers of others adults when you’re at the park or using a public restroom. Be wary of anyone who’s too friendly. Teach your kids about “stranger danger.” The world is so much more perilous these days and you simply cant be too careful when it comes to our precious children.

As a mom of two small boys you might be surprised to hear I disagree 100%. And whats more – I have never, and WILL never, teach my kids about “stranger danger.” Never. In fact, I hope to raise my kids to be ready and willing to interact with strangers in safe and appropriate ways, and I regularly encourage them to do so. I’m not a “free range parent” as they are currently known, but I admittedly make some parenting choices that would make many people these days more than a little uncomfortable.

Now before anyone starts calling CPS (or filling my inbox with hate mail) try to give me a minute to explain.

First off, I just want to take a minute to point out that the idea the world is less safe that the one we grew up in is a common misconception. You might be surprised to learn that all of the crime statistics actually show our children are SAFER today than we ourselves were back in our days. Don’t believe me? The folks over at Free Range Kids have compiled an incredible amount of independent research and statistics on this helpful page to show just how much safer our world really is. So why does it seem so much more dangerous? It all comes down to perception really. Crimes are more widely covered by the media these days in a way you simply didn’t see in our childhood. A child goes missing in a small town in Idaho and it can be national news coverage in the same day, and instantly flooding every social media feed for weeks. Statistics agree though: stranger abductions are remarkably rare, and the alarming majority of all crimes committed against kids are by family members or close friends. In short, the likelihood of a child being grabbed while walking to school or playing at the park is almost negligible.

crowdatparkOn top of all this media coverage we also need to take into account how much internet hoaxes have exponentially compounded the problem. Have you seen the story making its way around Facebook for the past few months about supposed attempted sex trafficking of a child in a Target store with their mom? A little internet sleuthing quickly reveals the story is 100% false, and that both the store manager and the local police have absolutely zero record of any incidences even remotely related to the one described on Facebook (despite the story clearly describing the authorities being the one to tell the mom about the sex trafficking ring.) And this is far from an isolated incident: urban myths have taken on a new level of reach in the social media world, and parents everywhere are bombarded with messages of supposed dangers around every corner. It’s pretty understandable why parents everywhere are feeling afraid.

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Terrorism, Tragedy, and the Autistic Child

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With the news from Paris on every channel and reports of horrible acts of terrorism splashed across every headline, the anxiety can weigh especially heavy on parents with small children at home. For parents of children on the autism spectrum attacks like these bring a whole wealth of additional challenges and considerations. My son Aidan, for example, has been able to read any newspaper headline with ease from about the age of 3, so shielding him from events of terror has been nearly an impossible feat. And since he is already prone to severe anxiety and oversized emotions, and both his age and his diagnosis cause him to struggle to understand complex social constructs like religious extremism or even politics in general? Events like these have the potential to rob him of much needed structure and security and plunge him into total chaos. Here are some valuable tips for helping these special kids cope with such difficult issues.

Resist the temptation to be anything less than honest.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of fudging the truth to keep our kids from their fears. Why not simply answer questions about unimaginable evil by somehow explaining it away all together? Although this tactic can buy some quick relief in the short term, it creates much bigger problems in the long run – especially with these children who often have extraordinarily gifted memories. Set a history now of being an honest communicator with your child when they have questions or concerns, rather than risk being permanently characterized as likely to offer less than truthful information.

Avoid offering extraneous details – stick to the facts.
Sure, we might see the clear connections between terrorism and religious extremism, or see how the history of US politics in the Middle East may contribute to modern day extremism, but is this all necessary information for a child who’s seeking to get their mind around some already complex ideas? When your child is presented with details of an attack or asks a question about something they have read or heard, its important to address only their specific area of inquiry and not offer any new information into the equation. Keep it simple, with age appropriateness in mind, and wait to see what their next questions may be before offering up new info unprompted. Your child may be satisfied with far less information than you think.

10173594_10152161556649818_2724005321082070142_nProvide safety in routine.
It can be tempting to try to appease difficult emotions with treats, privileges, or even easing off on normal requirements and expectations, but for the autistic child this can actually make the situation much worse. Provide comfort by sticking to familiar routines and predictable boundaries. When your child see’s that everything is still normal on the home front, it helps reinforce the idea that their world is still the same as before these terrible events, and that they don’t have to worry about total upheaval. Life will go on, and a strong routine is the best way to communicate this right now. 

Be vigilant about media exposure, but give yourself a huge measure of grace.
Children on the spectrum have a wide range of skills and areas of struggle, but many of these kids have hyperlexia, which is marked by not only unusually advanced reading abilities but a often a compulsion to read any and all written materials around them. It can be next to impossible to shield these kids entirely from events that are dominating the current news cycle. Give yourself grace and be prepared to answer any questions if and when they may arise. However, be aware of the media sources your child may come in contact with and take steps to filter them to the best of your ability. Avoid watching the news while your children are still awake, even if you think they aren’t paying attention. Don’t leave newspapers out or laptops open to newspaper websites. Ensure parental controls on computers, tablets, and/or smartphones your child may use keep news outlets from their access. I’ve even been known to flip over a copy of Newsweek or two when standing in the checkout lane, or hide them behind the Martha Stewart Living. You may not be able to shield them from the event entirely, but you can take steps to keep the coverage from being overly prevalent in their view.

Watch for nonverbal signs of anxiety
Even if your child has questions or concerns about events on the news, its not a given that they will verbalize them. Stay educated about various nonverbal signs of anxiety and keep an eye out for any new behaviors or changes to your child’s overall emotional state – even if you think your kids are still totally unaware. It’s impossible to know for sure what they may have overheard, seen in passing, or even been told by others, so never assume that the news isn’t playing a role in any behavior changes you might see.

Reach out to your resources and get support
Get in touch with your child’s teacher. Reach out to your ABA. Talk to your child’s counselor or psychologist – or consider contacting one if you don’t already see someone regularly. These issues can be extremely difficult to navigate, and it’s essential to have as many resources and tools on your side as possible. Build a support team around yourself and your child, and never hesitate to admit if you’re feeling out of your depth. It’s always ok to ask for help.

Project Aidan

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I have been overwhelmed by the support I have received both yesterday when posting the account to social media and in the short time since this blog post has gone live. The outpouring has been so beautifully encouraging and gives me hope that the angry voice of the minority is just that – the minority, and not at all how most people perceive my sweet boy.

That being said, Aidan is still working through the incident in his sweet little heart, and it’s hard for any parent to watch their child see so much less of themself than they really are. But in this case its honestly more than I can stand.

So I’m launching Project Aidan.

Because Aidan is able to read so fluently, and because he enjoys checking up on social media, I’ve decided to launch a campaign to show him just how loved and accepted he really is, and try to reverse some of the damage caused by the grocery store encounter. The premise is simple: post something to instagram, facebook, or even twitter with the hashtag #youremyheroaidan for Aidan to see. Tell him he’s special, tell him he’s awesome, tell him he’s loved – just tell him a little something to make him smile. I will continue to share with him your comments,posts, and shares and hopefully we can show this little guy just how wrong that man in the grocery store really was about him.

Lets send this kid an avalanche of love to outweigh the negativity and give him the boost of a lifetime. That man may be a veteran, but Aidan is the real hero in that story.

An Open Letter to the Man in Grocery Store

Yesterday was tough day.

It’s the day the every special needs parent dreads in the pit of their being and desperately hopes they never experience. In a world thats come so far in terms of tolerance and acceptance, I had almost begun to believe the comforting naivetés like “people know better now” and “no one thinks that way anymore.”

Yesterday it all came tumbling down and reality came crashing through again.

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While exiting the grocery store my boys and I crossed paths with you when you entered to do your shopping. You were wearing your camouflage jacket, proudly displaying patches identifying yourself as a veteran, the very sort of hero that Aidan has begun to emulate all around the backyard on his various “missions.” You made eye contact with Aidan, who was walking in front of my cart happily babbling on about new shoes he had picked out and how the springs in the heels just might even help him jump over a building if he practiced enough. Now Aidan typically responds to direct eye contact from strangers in one of two ways: he is either resistant and defensive, sometimes even verbally demanding that patrons stop looking at him, otherwise he responds quite to the other extreme and establishes an immediate relationship with the person in his head and desperately tries to connect and interact. In this particular occasion, he fell into column B. When asking Aidan about the incident, he told me he wanted to “play soldier with the solider.” This played out in the form of jumping in place into a playful stance of what can only be described as “put em up tiger,” and an accompanying “grrrrrrrr” for good measure.

Now I want to be perfectly clear about something: I don’t for two seconds believe that simply because my child is on the spectrum, that he is entitled to behave any way he pleases in public. For every measure of grace we give, there is an equal measure of teaching and guidance. And ultimately as a parent of ANY child, isn’t that all we can do? It’s entirely unreasonable to assume that any amount of good parenting could keep our children from ever acting out in public. No a good parent is simply one who uses each opportunity as a teaching experiences and is consistent in guiding their children to better choices.

1488186_10152498341399818_7654703513818516301_nYou looked at my son menacingly, then mumbled something at me under your breath while shaking your head in disapproval. “Im sorry,” I tried to say politely with a meager smile, “my son is on the spectrum.” I wasn’t planning to stop there, leaving my statement to waft around as some sort of free pass to continue on with our day. In fact I was angling myself to come down to my sons eye level and ask him to offer you not only an apology, but the greeting he has been well taught to offer any in uniform – “thank you for your service.” But before I could speak another word you stepped in gruffly. “Heh, that’s one thing you could call it.” Your words were seething with disapproval, broadcasting your judgment of my apparent lack of parenting skills and my inability to control my children.

I admit it, I was defensive at this point, seeing my sons face flashing with confusion and anxiety, desperately looking for cues from me on how to interpret a social situation that was simply too complex for his special brain to understand. My tone was less than polite at this point as I snapped back, “Excuse me? Do you even understand what it means to be on the autism spectrum?” I know, I could have shown more grace. I could have kept my patience. Maybe you were having a horrible day. Maybe you struggle with your own special challenges. I could have been kinder, but my words were sharp and pointed.

It was at this point you began to yell, each phrase bringing with it a wave of hot salty tears, each wave tossing me turbulently until I simply couldn’t tell which way was up and it was if my whole being shut down, lifelessly limp in the current.  “Of course I know what autism means!But then you should know better than to bring him into stores! It’s your own damn fault for subjecting the people to him! Next time keep the freak at home.

Did you see my son? Did you see when those final words left your mouth and that last syllable washed over his ears and into his tiny little heart? Did you notice him, rocking by the cart, hitting himself over and over repeating “Im not special. Im dumb. Im not special. Im dumb.” Did you even see? Because in that moment, my heart shattered into a million tiny pieces and I simply didn’t have the presence of mind to both minister to my wounded child and simultaneously find words to adequately respond. So I dropped to the floor to bear hug my son and attempt to soothe his restless stimming. You apparently interpreted this as some sort of check in the win column – proof I was the overindulgent parent endlessly catering to the child who wasn’t worthy of participation in mainstream society. You seemed to mentally pat yourself on the back with a little indignant hmph as you turned around and walked away, successfully putting us in our place and winning this battle against these clueless modern parents and their entitled spawn. And as quickly as you had crossed our path, you were gone, disappearing into the jars of pickles and rows of breakfast cereals, probably never to give us another thought.

In hardly more than a moment, you claimed to have examined all of my son and declared him unworthy – unfit for general consumption. You saw all you had needed to see, and you indignantly labeled him as too flawed to be worthy of redemption. You saw only a plague on the upstanding members of this fair society who know how to color properly within the lines, follow instructions, and wait patiently in lines with the others. You decided you knew my son, and you knew his apparent defects clearly outweighed his usefulness, and he belonged out of sight and out of mind where he wouldn’t be a burden on hardworking citizens like yourself.

But sir, you don’t know.

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You don’t know that Aidan has the most incredible mind for science. You don’t know that he spends hours exploring ideas like inertia and velocity and how colors are created in the spectrum of light. You don’t know that Aidan passionately poured over books and charts on chemistry for weeks, and ultimately committed most all of the table of elements to perfect memory. You don’t know that he draws charts of the order of the planets, identifies dinosaurs by enormous scientific names, and catalogs nature items in test tubes and jars for future study under his prized microscope.

You don’t know that Aidan has a grasp on logic and engineering that would make even the most adept builders and programmers sit up and take notice. You don’t know that he has already outgrown building legos with the instruction booklets and creates some of the most detailed and perfectly balanced structures and vehicles with whatever pieces he can find on hand. You don’t know that he has already mastered most of the basic concepts of computer programming logic and is hoping to start learning his first programming language this year. You don’t know that Aidan grasps complex math concepts like percentages and fractions and can explain them in ways that even some of his 5 year old peers could start to understand them.

10320379_10152178964994818_3365314110460915101_nYou don’t know that Aidan is one of the coolest 5 year olds on the planet. He has a passionate love for classic rock, placing the anthologies of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Who as some of his most prized playlist possessions. And don’t even get me started on his love for Queen. You don’t know he has an incredible sense of fashion, boasting quite the collection of vintage styled band tees and skinny jeans, and nobody rocks a beanie or a bowtie like this kid does. You don’t know that he used to idolize our old worship pastor, spending countless afternoons strumming on his guitar trying to be just like Mr. Robb someday. You don’t know that he mastered the art of comedic timing and a quick wit, keeping even the most celebrated minds on their toes with the quips this kid comes up with sometimes.

You don’t know that Aidan has the most compassionate heart of any 5 year old I’ve ever known. You don’t know that he sponsors a child in Uganda, ran his own snack stand at our garage sale last summer giving every cent he made to funding education for kids in Kenya, and that he worries deeply about the homeless and the poor. You don’t know that although Aidan often struggles to correctly interpret what others are feeling without more obvious clues, that the moment he senses someone is feeling hurt or lonely or upset? Aidan’s the first kid to run over and ask if they are ok or if there is something he can do. You don’t know that he’s still just a great big teddy bear, not afraid to spend a whole TV show cuddling his baby brother on the couch or offer his mama unsolicited kisses and I love you’s, even in front of his peers.

10517974_10152350869364818_6568712365504512355_nYou don’t know that Aidan’s love for others is limitless and his propensity for offering forgiveness knows no bounds. You don’t know that when I had the worst day in my parenting life and screamed horribly at my son casting in him his room telling him I couldn’t stand to be around him, that when I went to apologize to him later he looked up from his book before I could say a word and said calmly and sweetly “I forgive you mommy, and Im so sorry I called you a jerk when you were being mad.” You don’t know that even though my sweet boy is still deeply wounded by the horrible words you said, that at bedtime prayers last night he chose to pray for YOU, sir. You don’t know he offered up a sweet sincere prayer that God would give the army man a good day tomorrow, and that he could have Jesus in his heart. You don’t know that my 5 year old son with all his challenges and struggles was hero enough to forgive YOU, a man that should have been his hero but instead broke his tiny heart to pieces.

You don’t know my son. You don’t know what the world would be missing if I didn’t choose to keep subjecting people to him as you put it. I have spent all year teaching my son the truth he is valiantly trying to cling to today: that He is made in God’s perfect image. We have taught our son that our big perfect God is simply so giant, so complex, and so beautifully multifaceted, that it takes a picture of each and every man woman and child on this earth to begin to see a reflection of His perfect being. That being made in His image means that without Aidan, we would miss some facet of Gods character, some immutable truth about His being, that somehow Aidan in his beautiful uniqueness has been chosen to perfectly showcase to us all. Aidan has a responsibility to keep being the amazing little guy God created Him to be, and it’s heart wrenching to me that someone like you would miss out on such beautiful truths and the absolute joy he brings every soul that really takes the time to get to know him.

You’ve probably forgotten about us sir, and there’s a good chance you will never see this letter. But we wont soon be able to forget you or your jaded words. I can only pray that God’s grace abounds and that Aidan be reminded how incredibly special and incredible he really is. And judging by his bold choice to pray for you last night, I am encouraged that God is holding my sweet boy safely in the shelter of his arms, and that somehow He will bring him through this stronger and better for it. We will keep reminding him of who he is, and try daily to undo the damage of your careless words. I pray that God will bring people to surround my sweet son and see him for the beautiful hero he is, facing the world each day with such determination in the face of his challenges and such a joy for each day he’s been given. And most of all I pray that your heart be softened, and that you never again have cause to tear down a child the way you did in that store. I’m hoping I can follow my sons incredible example and find forgiveness for you in my heart enough to wish you well, but I admit he is so much stronger and more compassionate than I am right now. If only we could all be a little bit more like Aidan. I hope someday my son is able to see himself for the truly incredible person he really is.

UPDATE: Want to help outweigh some of the nastiness Aidan is dealing with by participating in a good old fashioned viral campaign for good? Check out this post to see how you can participate in Project Aidan and help this little guy get a taste of just how special he really is.

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