Please don’t cheer for my son

Please don’t cheer for my son.

I am reminding myself as much as I am asking this of you. I’m just as guilty as you are.  I have to stop myself from breaking into a happy dance. While I’m touched that you share my enthusiasm for his progress, I must kindly request that you stop demonstrating it.

Please don’t cheer for my son.

I think we can both be forgiven. It’s hard to resist the impulse to say, “Oh, how adorable!” when we see a child doing something grown-up like. Yet, our words and actions aren’t helping my son to learn and grow.

So please don’t cheer for my son.

Think about. If the clerk at the register says “hello” as you check out, would you heartily respond “Good job!”? When your friend says, “Goodbye!” as she leaves, do you clap for her? If I say, “Thank you” when you’ve helped me out, do you cheer for me?

No? Then please don’t cheer for my son.

Together, let’s stop treating him like a trained monkey to be rewarded with praise. Just because he touches an iPad to speak doesn’t mean we should treat him as any less than an intelligent human being. Together, let’s agree that we need to model language by responding to the content of his communication.

Please don’t cheer for my son.

I also have some answers for you regarding his iPad. No, it isn’t amazing what kids have to play with today. No, it’s not a shame that kids today are spoiled with all these newfangled gadgets. No, I’m not worried that my son may never learn to speak.

What do you think he was just doing?

There is an employee in the bakery of our local grocery store who I seek out when we shop there. She waits for Philip to say “hello” and then responds in kind. She’s patient while he finds the sequence to ask her for a doughnut. She says “you’re welcome” after he thanks her. She talks to him. She talks TO him, not about him. Sometimes, because we’re usually there near closing time, she laughs and reminds him not to get fingerprints (or nose prints) on the display case that she’s just cleaned. Using his iPad, Philip says “goodbye.” She smiles, waves,  and says “Bye-bye!” back.

She doesn’t cheer for my son.

If you never meet my son, I still ask that you remember these words. Someday, you’ll encounter someone else using some form of Alternative and Augmentative Communication. It’s okay if this is all new to you. It’s probably okay to ask questions about how it works. It’s definitely okay to talk to that person, listen to what they have to say and respond appropriately.

But unless that person just scored the winning run or offered you a million dollars or announced a cure for cancer, it’s not okay to cheer.

Please. Don’t cheer for my son.

I was selected for VOTY/PhOTY 2015

144 thoughts on “Please don’t cheer for my son

    1. The advances in technology mean that more people with language delays/communication issues will be using AAC. I love it when people ask thoughtful questions about my son’s device in order to understand what he is doing. It means they will be more accepting of the next person they encounter.

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  1. WOw. This is really teaching me something. I might be your worst nightmare…I cheer for everything and everyone and it’s not appropriate and probably downright offensive. And I am learning from you. About this. Thank you.

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    1. Actually, my son is young enough that it is still acceptable to be encouraging. But there will come the point that I and everyone else will have to stop acting as if he is a small child just because he doesn’t speak.

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  2. This is a good point. I am incredibly guilty of cheering on my boys. Part of it is because both boys respond to positive reinforcement. So when they engage in a give-and-take conversation, afterwards I will tell them that they did a great job. I want to encourage them to continue to have conversation, even though it is difficult for them. I will try to watch this…and will try to not cheer on other children, either.

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    1. I’m not saying that we should encourage our children. One incident behind this post’s origin took place at my mom’s birthday party. We entered, Philip used his iPad to say hello and everyone clapped and cheered. No one said “hi” back. I realized that the process was disingenuous. I don’t want Philip just to learn how to say hi on the iPad. I want him to understand that it is part of every day interaction and communication with others. That only works if the others talk back.

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  3. It’s so great that he has access to technology that helps him to communicate, and that you are able to help people understand what’s best for his development.

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  4. I’m reading this post after a conversation with my friend about cheering. Bubby is finally waving goodbye to others, and I cheer him on gleefully when he does. She thinks I, and other Americans, are ridiculous with our encouragement. She says that German parents don’t tell their children, “Good Job!” when they do something simple and routine. However, I realize that your post is also about something deeper, too. There’s a time for encouragement, and parents/close friends recognize when it’s needed. Otherwise, cheering can send a mixed message or hurt a child’s self-esteem.

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    1. Maybe I’m assuming that this technology will become more prevalent since I live with it every day. I’d be interested in a year from now to see if you encounter someone using AAC.

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  5. Thank you for this! This is something I am always trying to tell others, but I’m always met with backlash. You explained it perfectly when you said you want people to talk TO the child, not ABOUT the child.

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  6. Excellent. This is touching, tactful, forceful and moving–all in one! You’ve written with great emotion but without being snarky. Love all the links. They are perfect additions to your entry. Well done!

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  7. Freaking fantastic. And I have to tell you you went in a different direction than I expected. I have a post that I’m working on in which I’m the bystander watching a situation unfold. I’m thinking now that it needs a little more work. Maybe it’ll be ready for Yeah Write. If it strikes a nerve for you, please let me have it. I can take it.

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    1. One thing that I hope everyone understands is that I, too, have talked about my son instead of to him. I’ve praised him for using his iPad instead of responding to what he is saying. I make mistakes, but I’m hoping to learn from them and do better next time, for my son and others like him.

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  8. But can I give you a standing ovation? You are such an incredible mom, and I have learned so much from reading your posts. You son is so lucky to have you. And I kind of want to give that bakery employee a hug.

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    1. Oh, I’d like to give her a hug, too. I’m sad that I haven’t seen her in a few weeks. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know her name, so I haven’t been able to check and see if her schedule changed or if she is no longer working there.

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  9. Wow. What a moving post. And I think that people just don’t know what to DO with different. I’m sure they think they are being kind, when in reality it is anything but. I try my best to treat all children the same, even those with special difficulties . . . just like children. I’m glad you have that grocery store employee. Must be a lovely feeling for your son of just being treated like a person and not an anomaly.

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  10. A lot of people think theyre trying to be helpful, but they just end up confusing the kid. I get tired of all the ‘High Five’ requests from random strangers. We never taught our son how to do that so they end up getting a blank stare instead. I know that’s kind of passive aggressive on our part!

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  11. You know, we’ve recently come to the same conclusion about our son. He does not use an iPad to speak but is on the autism spectrum and has a variety of issues. I realized recently that, in many ways, we were treating him like a baby and praising little things that he can do but just doesn’t want to. We’ve stopped cheering at those and instead interact as if the desired behaviors are expected. I’m not sure whether it’s helped me or him more but I definitely feel like it’s showing us both more respect.
    Really great post.

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    1. It’s so hard to stop babying our children. I imagine this happens whether they are autistic or not. I think that as parents of autistic children, though, we have to take care that we are just being typical parents and not as if we expect less of our children.

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  12. Wow. Thanks so much to opening up to this perspective. I suppose cheering does somehow patronize or draw attention to something we want to normalize. I will keep this post with me in the back of my mind for a long time!

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  13. Encouragement must come from a place of honesty to be meaningful. Otherwise, yes, you’re right, it’s condescending and irrelevant. Your post makes that point so clearly – for all of us, regardless of whose children we’re talking to.

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  14. Thank you so much for this post. People – myself included – need education on how to treat those who might be different, especially if we don’t ordinarily get the opportunity to interact with them. I am grateful for people like you, willing to teach us a better way.

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    1. It is hard to know the “right” way to act when you have limited interaction with people who are different in some way. I’ve learned so much from reading the blogs of autistic adults. They provide a valuable perspective on how it feels to be treated in a less than respectful way.

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  15. This was amazing…and a much needed post. You would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know a friend, family member, or acquaintance with an autistic child, and a post like this helps all of us become the right kind of advocates. Thanks.

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  16. I don’t think I’ve ever met your son, but I’m glad you told me that. In case I ever do. Because I – no sarcasm intended, here – probably might not have thought of it for myself. beautiful writing.

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  17. We are all human beings and should all be treated with respect, if people are only able to communicate in a certain way, we should educate ourselves in learning it. Out of all the ways your son could have chosen, he is very smart to have chose this way of communicating, I hope people can see this

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  18. This is a powerful post. It is eye opening and I will definitely remember it when talking to any child like yours. Thank you!

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  19. Thank you for speaking out rather than keeping it to yourself. I speak to my son, 8yrs like he is a normal person and only praise when it needs to be done, such as sporting events, report cards, etc. At the end of a long day, yesterday, my wife turned 39 and she just met with a wonderful lady a few weeks ago that has autistic children, yes, more than one, and she had mentioned that she appreciated that my wife did not talk about her children but rather to them.

    We have a very dear friend that is in the latter stages of Lou Gehrig Disease and she has a reader that she uses with her eyes for digital and verbal communications. Although I thought it was really cool when I first saw it, it really helped with communications which was even cooler. She sends emails and chats on Facebook with it and unless you knew her, you would never know that she was using it through normal conversations.

    Not that all of this has really anything to do with you personally, but I just thought I would share a couple of quick blurbs and let you know that there are many of us that do not focus on or let differences hinder our treatment of others but accept them for the beautiful people that they are and give them the same respect and treatment as any other individual in this world.

    Bless you, your son and the rest of your family.

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  20. I promise you that I will not cheer for your son, but I would certainly cheer for his Mom! I am retired from the health care field and and the last job I did was in pediatrics. I understand exactly what you are saying but I wonder if you realize what kind of courage it takes to raise a special needs child. So many times I have heard parents of special needs kids say that the child is a gift of love, and I agree–every child is a gift of love. But the truly special children are given to mothers like you.

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    1. There are several different apps available for iPads as well as self-contained devices. To find what’s best for your nephew, I suggest what we did: have a speech therapist bring in different products, test them out, and then determine what meets his needs.

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  21. Congratulations on being one of the “Voices of the year”. I hope you don’t mind if I follow your blog, I love to read in the morning. A cup of coffee and a good story goes hand in hand 🙂

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  22. I get what you’re saying here. I understand you. It’s annoying, and can make your son feel annoyed. But try to lighten up a tad, and remember that the average person doesn’t know the slightest about what it’s like to be on the other side, and cheering is alot better than unwelcome opinion giving.

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    1. I appreciate your honest response. Sometimes I do need to lighten up. However, this isn’t about mere annoyance but about respecting the dignity of those who communicate in a way that is different.

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  23. I really like how you wrote this. I work with children diagnosed with ASD and I am always reminded of how easy it is to take so much of what they can do for granted. I think that the way you wrote this will stick with people and remind them of the most productive way to treat children with the diagnosis.
    Well done!

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  24. My grandson did not speak his first words until he was 5 years old…he didn’t even say mama. I applaud you for standing up and saying just treat him as you would any other child! Never give up, he may never speak or he may just decide one day that he has had enough and just go to talking. My grandson is 6/12 now and you can not shut him up!!! I tell his mother he is trying to make up for the first 5 years.

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  25. So glad your post was Freshly Pressed. I am the Communications Chair for the Autism Awareness club at my college, and I’ll definitely be sharing this. Also, I’m studying to be a speech pathologist, so I look forward to reading about your experiences with AAC.

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  26. As a college student studying speech pathology, I very much appreciate this post. Thank you for taking the time to share – for helping me grow. I hope one day I am able to work with children who have mothers with the same mindset as you.

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  27. That was very powerful. What I liked most about it is that you don’t seem to be talking down on someone who made a mistake, you are willing to understand if they are. While I may not cheer for your son, lots of cheer to you for writing so magnificently.

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  28. So … this post/blog just kind of popped up randomly on my feed and the title was catchy so I gave it a read.

    Cheering is the act in spirit of sharing joy at victories and at overcoming obstacles. People don’t just cheer when a goal is scored, they cheer when wars are won, when the unconscious open their eyes, when sportsmanship is displayed, when a beautiful song is played… they cheer when something someone else does resonates within their souls and brings them joy.

    While I agree with man of your points – that technology isn’t “spoiling” kids, that non-verbal communicators are less intelligent than verbal communicators etc – I disagree with others, such as saying that technological advancements such as the iPad aren’t amazing (that kind of belittles the work of thousands geniuses pouring their souls into technological advancement over centuries of human development), but in particular the whole “no cheering” thing.

    I mean, I get your deep down point, but I suppose I wish you had phrased it differently (not that I’m any sort of sensitive phraser myself). My daughter is 7 months old. When she rolls over, or sits unsupported, or guides a sippy cup into her mouth, I cheer for her. I do this much more to express my own joy at her progress and accomplishments than to encourage her. I don’t think it patronizes her, I like to think it teaches her that the world is not indifferent to her efforts. That the things she struggles to do, whether they are the same things us adults struggle to do or not, are valid, valuable and praise-worthy. Cheering her accomplishments, no matter how mundane they may seem to some, I don’t think patronizes her or speaks down to her.

    A world without cheerleaders seems an ugly and unemotional world to me. So long as the cheers come from a place of joy and love, I say let them ring out. I say the world today is lacking in the whole habit of sharing love and joy, and stifling that further because one idea of what a praise-worthy accomplishment isn’t the same as your idea of a praise-worthy accomplishment is counterproductive. I can certainly see how certain forms of praise, particularly from strangers, and even more particularly if you are working for “integration”, could be an annoyance… but I think it is important to understand where those expressions are coming from – and though they might be coming from a place of ignorance (they haven’t had the same experiences), they certainly aren’t coming from a place of malice. By rejecting love and support, what then are we teaching our children? I don’t know about you, and I’m not trying to put words in anyone’s mouth, but I’d much rather be “loved and supported” than “normal” or “unexceptional”. If your son has had to overcome hurdles that the rest of us can’t understand, that makes him a bit super, and deserving of a cheer or two, no?

    But what the hell do I know anyway?

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    1. I regret that I was unclear in my remark about “no, it isn’t amazing . . .” I wasn’t disparaging the technology. I’m grateful for it and do find it pretty cool that we can carry computers around with us. My intent was to let people know that my son isn’t playing with an iPad. It is a tool that allows him to communicate.
      I don’t envision a cheer-less world. That sounds quite depressing. What I envision is a world that is accepting of alternative forms of communication and that celebrates a child/adult who is using it by engaging WITH them and not AT them. I realize these devices are a novelty to most people, so I understand this is going to take time.

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  29. I am agree with you. No praise songs are needed to be sung for every successful activity kid does. Why to pamper a kid from childhood? A child can be encouraged to learn new things but this should not be done by offering rewards.

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  30. How old is your son? Does he attend school? If so, are the autism teacher, speech teacher, and other staff members aware of your request?

    At the elementary school, where I teach, we have 10-12 students at all ranges of the autism spectrum. Several of these students can speak but are selectively mute. I have witnessed their teachers and paraprofessionals frequently praise these children when they say Hi back, remember to make eye contact, and so on.

    I agree that if a child willingly communicates with you regularly, then that behavior does not need to be praised. However, with students such as the ones I described above, positive praise can help reinforce communication skills.

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  31. I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately. I really think we do a disservice to those who are “different” (forgive me if that term isn’t appropriate but I am not certain how else to describe it) by hailing them as heroes for something that wouldn’t get you or I a second glance, simply because we’re what society deems “normal”.

    I injured my ankle and used a cane for a while. I was shocked by how I was treated in public. People spoke louder and slower, as though the cane were a statement of my intellect (or lack thereof, based on their behavior). While this hurt my feelings, it also provided me with a lesson in compassion and perspective, which I am grateful for.

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  32. Your words link up beautifully with many other forms of “cheering” in so many settings.

    I believe it’s a deep tribal-family behavior. People might like to say something positive and welcoming, and don’t know where to start. So, they might choose some incidental neutral feature and praise that.

    It’s a specialty among relatives within a family. Think of all the times a family is together celebrating a holiday, or a church congregation is enjoying coffee hour in the parish hall. A four year old runs in very upset calling for adult help because a cat is dragging a bird around on the lawn, and the adults burst out laughing because the child seems so darned cute that they miss the content and affect. “You are getting so BIG!” “Did Santa bring you those blond curls?”

    This response probably happens all the time to people who use miniature horses as guide animals. Maybe the owner is in a rush to reach an ultrasound appointment, and they really need someone to give them directions; but the patients and staff can’t stop their happy cries of glee over this wonderful little horse wearing a harness and 2 pairs of sneakers.

    Tribal families can respond in all sorts of ways to someone with a new form of message. Some of those ways are not all that pleasant, so getting a cheer as a response is doing really well. BUT, of course one is left with that loneliness for implicit kindred spirits who Get It, and can get past the form and respond to the essence.

    Your piece made me reflect on the times it’s possible to miss the message because I got caught in the medium instead. Will pay attention, and remember you.

    Thank you!
    Mary

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  33. Powerfully written. Being a relatively new father to a 16 month old boy, I often wonder whether I praise him too much for his achievements, things like saying hello waving bye bye and using technology cleverly and intuitively. But I see the distinction now, as he grows people will stop congratulating him for those thinga as they begin to assume they are just ordinary for him. I hope that more people like your bakery person begin to treat your son like the person he is.

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  34. Wow, how beautifully written! Really made me think about how we view things we don’t understand.
    We don’t applaud Stephen Hawkin for communicating via a machine, we hail him as a genius for his work.
    Technology is great, and we should stand in awe, not of what it does, but of how it can liberate.
    May technology, your son and all others who use it to their advantage be the inspiration of the future generations.

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  35. This is an insightful, powerful post, that makes some very solid points, regardless of a child’s situation. We tend to treat so many things as if they are performances, rather than growth and development. We too often speak to children as if they are not people, but playthings that amuse us. Wonderful piece! Mazel on the BlogHer award!

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  36. Reblogged this on Creativity Punch! and commented:
    As a Physical Therapist, it’s part of our job to remind everyone (especially ourselves) that PWDs (Persons With Disability) that one way to treat them as a person is to treat them like they’re not different from others.

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  37. As a Physical Therapist, we always have to remind ourselves to interact with PWDs the way we would interact with anyone else. They’re just using other ways to communicate. Thank you for sharing this. It was insightful and made every reader understand why we shouldn’t cheer for your son. Keep writing! 🙂

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    1. Even though your primary job is as a PT, you have the power to build speech and language by talking with rather than cheering at those who communicate differently. I’m glad you are willing to do so.

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  38. I cheer for everybody regardless of age because I believe in the power of positive reinforcement. I also do it because it is so rare that I see anybody using good manners or not being a jerk that I am genuinely excited when I see it and cheer the way I do when I see anything that pleases me.

    If I ever meet you and you ask me not to cheer, I will do my best to hold it in, but you are expecting way too much of me if you think that I will read your mind/blog and hold it in without being asked first.

    Cheering is my default. I will change it for individuals who ask because I am a respectful sort of person, but I am not going to turn off a natural part of myself for the sake of a minority opinion expressed in an open letter on a blog written by someone I am unlikely to ever encounter in real life.

    Don’t be angry the first time we meet. Just let me know and I will do my best to respect you. Just don’t forget that I can’t respect you until you let me know how because I am not a mind reader. Much as I would love to do everything people request in their open letters, that is simply not physically possible.

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