A child is the sum of his parts, and no one part should be given more weight than another. Each is vital.
Do you know the ancient story of the blind men and the elephant? There are many versions, and one goes like this:
Six blind men were examining an elephant, each trying to discover what an elephant was like. Each man touched different parts of the elephant. The first blind man touched the elephant’s trunk and declared an elephant to be like the branch of a tree. The second man touched the elephant’s tusk and said the elephant is like a solid pipe. The third man touched the elephant’s tail and declared the elephant to be like a rope. And so on. You get the idea. Each of the blind men had an incomplete perception of an elephant, because he was focused on only one part. None could perceive the whole. (Read one version of the entire story here.)
When I was new to the world of childhood special needs, I assumed that things were relatively straightforward—not necessarily simple, but straightforward. I assumed that medical and mental health professionals:
- had for the most part figured out what was what
- shared consensus with their peers
- would offer at least somewhat consistent answers
Looking back, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Let the diagnoses begin
At the age of five, Gracie’s first diagnosis came from a pediatrician: ADHD, along with risk of nonverbal learning disability.
As a loving, diligent mother who wanted to help Gracie and “fix” her situation, I educated myself all about ADHD and NVLD and began to implement the suggested strategies at home.
Shortly thereafter, a child psychologist diagnosed Gracie with Asperger Syndrome. I threw myself into learning about AS and implemented those strategies as well.
Next, a neuropsychologist said that Gracie had global learning disabilities and mixed expressive-receptive language disorder. Although already beginning to tire, I studied these new conditions and addressed them at home and by advocating at school.
Then, a psychiatrist added reactive attachment disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and a few others to the list.
I was overwhelmed
I couldn’t possibly implement recommended strategies for all these disorders, some of which contradicted each other. There weren’t enough hours in the day. Nor could I make the whole outside world understand Gracie’s situation, no matter how much I tried.
But boy, did I try. I set up and managed a veritable round robin of therapies, tutoring, appointments, and home activities for Gracie—some of which lasted for years—and constantly advocated for her at school. (And as I’ve said before, if I had it to do over again, I’d offer her more time with things she enjoyed. I would also try to focus less on her and more on her typically-developing brothers. Hindsight is indeed 20/20.)
But onward we went. Today, Gracie has 18 diagnoses to her name—one for every year of her young life. And while not all cases are this complex, it’s not uncommon for a child to receive multiple diagnoses.
How can this be?
Are some of these diagnoses “wrong”? Not necessarily. In truth, each diagnosis can be said to be accurate, yet each is inadequate to explain the entire situation.
Like the blind men with the elephant, mental health and medical professionals only see a part of the whole child.
It’s not that they are not intelligent, skilled, or caring. They often are all of these.
Yet professionals are limited by the perspectives of their particular specialty. And they also do not see the child across multiple settings, for long periods of time—like a parent does.
What does this mean for parents?
It is only fitting for Mommy or Daddy Elephant to seek the advice of professionals when their baby’s trunk or tusk or tail needs attention. The information and advice they receive can be of great value.
Yet it is equally important for Mommy or Daddy Elephant to see more than just the trunk or tusk or tail. A wise elephant will look at the whole essence of its little one, and remember that an evaluating professional sees only a part of the whole.
Parents need to know they can trust their instincts. They shouldn’t award complete power to professionals simply because they are professionals. If advice is contradictory, or somehow feels “off”, one course of action is to discuss questions and concerns in greater detail. And parents can always seek assistance elsewhere, hopefully with someone who can take a more holistic viewpoint.
Parents are the ultimate authorities on their child
Parents should always keep the whole child in mind, because we see not just a child’s weakness, deficits, or what is “wrong”. We also see what is right, good, and beautiful.
I repeat: A child is the sum of his parts, and no one part should be given more weight than another. Each is vital.