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My special needs son and his art of subtle manipulation


“Excuse Me?” I looked down at Isaac, who was kneeling at my feet by the kitchen sink. He’d just crawled in from the other room and was pointing back in that direction. “Adam just call me a ‘Buttface.’”

Adam is a wild, precocious young man. He’s smart, a problem solver, sometimes so smart we are tempted to regret his intellect. His language has been developing rapidly, with new words joining his vocabulary each week, but at 17 months old, “buttface” is not one of those words.

Isaac is smart too, but in a far sneakier way. While Adam is creating a teetering tower of toys and pillows to reach the ornaments at the top of the Christmas tree (the top being the only portion we decorated this year), Isaac is devising ways to get others to do his bidding. It is a skill he has developed to cope with cerebral palsy, which has left him, at 5 years old, with less physical agility than his baby brother. Isaac has had a great deal of practice in the art of subtle manipulation.

I vividly remember I conversation I had with Isaac’s physical therapist. We were sitting in our living room, and I was expression my frustration with Isaac’s motor development. Isaac could transition from sitting to crawling and back again. We’d been working on the skill for months. In his therapy sessions he’d do it 10 times in a row, yet in every day play around the house, I’d never seen him do it a single time. The therapist listened politely to my concerns, and then quickly suggested, “You probably just need to have his older brothers stop bringing him whatever he wants.” As a 2 year old, Isaac had already learned that toddler eyes and a toothy grin could achieve his goals faster than his arms and legs.

So, there he sat on the kitchen floor, telling a bold-faced lie through that beautiful smile. I guessed Adam was doing something Isaac did not enjoy, or perhaps playing with a toy Isaac wanted. In any other sibling situation, the older brother would just exert his will on the younger, not that that’s okay. Isaac can’t out-run or out-wrestle his little brother. When Adam takes a toy, or demolishes a tower of blocks, he just runs away. Isaac can’t compete in that arena, but in the battle of wits Adam is still the clear loser. Isaac is not afraid to tell a lie or fake an injury to get his way.

Any other child in this family would sit in time-out for lying about a sibling, but with Isaac that is often a far harder decision than it should be. On the one hand, a lie is a lie. But on the other, Isaac probably exerts more energy using his crutches to walk from the car into the house than I exert running a mile. When I see a leaf on the pavement, I stomp it with gleeful exuberance (yes, I am also a 5 year old). Isaac warily gives it a wide birth, for if it were to make its way under his crutch, he’d slip and tumble to the ground. He’s created intellectual systems, “people skills” if you will, to get others to face these terror fraught situations so that he doesn’t have to. Good for him, right?

I find this a very difficult situation to navigate. I can’t raise a son who lies about others to get what he wants. That’s not going to work. He has to stop that. At the same time, he’s using his brain to find ways to accomplish things that his body can’t. He must continue to do that if he’s going to thrive as an adult with a disability. We want to encourage him to do that, but to do it without lying and manipulating, to do it ethically, which is . . . nuanced, to say the least. Of course, nuance is not something you can teach to a preschooler.

And this is what life is like with a little one with cerebral palsy. He’s got the cutest little smile that garners gifts and praise from complete strangers, and can summon moments of courage that bring tears to your eyes, but behind those adorable glasses is a mind working overtime. I feel the battle as much as anyone else. He’s a little sweetheart who works so hard. It is easy to let him slide on behavioral issues, but in the long run these little behaviors that get him what he wants right now aren’t helpful to get him where he needs to go.

So, yeah, off to time-out with you, Buttface.

Nathan Hackman is a stay-at-home dad to four boys, one with cerebral palsy. He writes about the amazing adventure of parenting with a few extra challenges. In his free time he . . . doesn’t have free time.

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