Perched on the edge of my chair, I furtively craned my neck in hopes catching a premature glimpse of the words on the paper-words that I would hear in a moment and would seal my fate. Of course, I had a good idea of what the paper would reveal, but somehow seeing the results of the battery of diagnostic tests in black and white was like a door slamming shut. Once that diagnosis was read, I would forever officially be the parent of a special needs child.
The therapist smiled a comforting smile, one I am sure that she had perfected after years of greeting parents on the hot seat. She took a deep breath and I tried hard to swallow to ease my dry throat as I prepared for the verdict.
She shared that the test results indicated some deficiencies in my four year old son, and those deficiencies could globally indicated a series of diagnoses. I waited to hear the letters and words-letters like ADD, Autism, OCD- that I had feared. But instead, what she said next shocked me. “Right now, my recommendation would be to ignore any official labels and focus on what’s possible over time.” Because we had chosen to homeschool, a decision we made before we ever thought of seeking a diagnosis, she indicated that there was no educational benefit gained from making it official. More than that, she saw any diagnosis at this age as much of a drawback as it was an advantage.
I felt myself getting angry. I had come-and paid for- a diagnosis and I wanted to hear the diagnosis. As she spoke, though, my current anger and my former fear began to melt. She began to hand me sheets of papers that, ironically, had diagnoses written in bold letters at the top. Treating me like the patient, the therapist definitively marked a line through each diagnosis and directed my attention to the list of characteristics that accompanied each diagnosis. She spoke in a soft “come down from the ledge” tone that lulled me into a place where I could really listen to her words. That’s when she hit me with the money quote. “This list of characteristics is your task list for the coming years. Consider each one of these a challenge to be met and see how many you can conquer with your child.”
With those words, I formally became the parent of a special needs child, but unlike the dark and restricted path I expected, I felt free. She cautioned me that there could come a time, like if he were to enter the school system or have a need for services, that a diagnosis would be a benefit. When, and if that time came, she was willing and able to make the list of characteristics an official diagnosis. Until then, I was to operate just like every other parent. Along with teaching the ABCs and counting by tens, we would also be working on empathy and eye contact. The list was slightly different from the typically developing child, but the goal was the same. I was to see what my child needed to learn and do my best to help him learn it.
Unfettered from the diagnosis, I embraced the list of characteristics like someone had thrown down the gauntlet. Rather than see the list as an inescapable life sentence, I saw it as a grudge list of tasks that I could throw my entire energy behind. The anti-diagnosis that I had expected to gut me was exactly the impetus I needed to start down the special needs path with confidence. Should we need that official diagnosis in the future, I was fully ready to embrace it, but for the time being, I was too busy marking tasks off my list.