“You're not a baby anymore."
"You're old enough that you should be…"
"But you’re a big girl now. Your mother shouldn’t have to order for you when you are eating out.”
These are things that well-meaning people say to my nine-year-old daughter.
I’m always standing right there. They don’t know about her autism diagnosis. They don’t know that she has dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects her motor skills and ability to form numbers, letters, and affects her spelling.
These are things that well-meaning people should not say. It's simple — if you are a stranger, you don’t know the child you are speaking to. Age is nothing more than an indicator of the number of days a person has been alive.
My daughter is nine, and she is brilliant. She said her first word at just 12 weeks old. I didn’t believe it when my husband said he heard her say “Mama.” Not until he took her from me and stayed close enough for me to hear her little voice say the sweetest word I have ever heard. She was speaking in full sentences by ten months of age and reading at 15 months. By the time she was in kindergarten, she was reading at a third-grade level.
"Stop letting her get away with not trying," they said. "She’s a big girl. You shouldn’t be babying her by letting her fall asleep with you in her bed," they said. And I would nod stupidly, trying to change the subject to something other than the things my daughter could not do and cannot do still.
Once, when she was five, she came to me while I was still in my bed to ask me why, if the center of the world is molten lava, then why isn’t the rest of the world burning. My husband groaned in bed next to me. It was far too early for us to have to think, so I told her we could look up the answer to her question online after Mommy had her coffee.
I drank two cups.
She’s tall for her age. That’s another reason people expect more and assume she can and should be able to do as requested or expected. I was taller than she is now when I was her age. I stood 5’1’’ at just eight years old — just as tall as my mother and taller than most women in my family. I know what it is like to be looked at sideways from adults who have no qualms telling you that you're a baby for acting your age when you’re as tall or taller than they are.
She can read Shakespeare and writes her own poetry, but she can’t tie her shoes.
She can watch a Discovery Channel special and recite all the little facts everyone else missed, but she needs me in bed next to her just to fall asleep. She can sight-read violin music but she can’t and won’t ride a bike. She can hold her own in conversations with adults she knows and/or in situations where she feels comfortable, but when we are sitting in a loud restaurant during the busy breakfast rush, she can’t order her own meal.
And that’s okay with us.
We know what she wants. There are too many lights and too many voices, and she is over-stimulated. To calm herself, she listens to her favorite YouTube shows on her iPhone with headphones. We order for her.
It’s the dysgraphia that makes it impossible for her to form the shapes needed and make a proper knot to keep her shoes tied. She stopped trying long ago when her kindergarten teacher made her feel small and stupid in front of her classmates for asking for help (when her gym shoe came untied on Phys Ed day). No one knew about her autism then. I brought the possibility up to doctors, teachers, family, and friends, but no one could see beyond her intellect and maturity.
"If she's difficult," they said, "it’s because gifted kids are difficult."
"Stop trying to make nothing into something," they said.
"Stop letting her get away with not trying," they said.
"She’s a big girl. You shouldn’t be babying her by letting her fall asleep with you in her bed," they said.
And I would nod stupidly, trying to change the subject to something other than the things my daughter could not do and cannot do still. I learned to tie my shoes long before she did, I would think. I didn’t need my mother next to me to sleep. And as the oldest of five in a large with a large extended family, I learned to speak when adults expected me to speak for myself.
Surely, she just needed time, I told myself. Sometimes, I lost my temper and became the voice of the strangers who found fault with my daughter for not acting her age. I told her she wasn’t trying. I told her that she was lazy.
These memories shame me when I think of them now. But I am proud of the fact that I pushed and continued to push for her autism evaluation, as this is where all the validation in the world has erased the sting of judgment from strangers.
They don’t know any better.
I don’t have to tell them that the reason she won’t ride a bike is the sensory overload that comes with trying to stay upright. If she’s not stable, it’s not happening. I know this now, and so does she. So we tell her that we will look for a small adult trike for her. Maybe for her birthday in June. And I think maybe I’ll get one for me, too. We can ride together when the sun is shining, and I will watch her smile and laugh and ask when we can do it again. Because I know my kid.
And she will always be my baby.