According to WebMD, “Executive function is a set of mental skills that help you get things done. Executive function helps you: manage time, pay attention, switch focus, plan and organize, remember details, avoid saying or doing the wrong thing, [and] do things based on your experience.”
Now bear with me for a paragraph. I have five parenting “guidelines,” if you will, that I feel may be key to helping a child persevere into becoming a productive member of society. In no particular order, they are: 1. Family, 2. Travel, 3. Spirituality, 4. School Involvement, 5. Volunteerism. While I did make these up, and I may have them in my mind, as a family we are not always all that great at following through with them. I am genuinely hoping that this doesn’t mean I’m raising future cat burglars or worse. With that said, I think we’ve got the family and travel guidelines down, and do pretty well with spirituality and school involvement most of the time. We have lacked in our volunteerism. Have we volunteered? Yes. Cameron has worked with us at a church to serve a community meal to anyone who needs it. We’ve raised money for family members in need by organizing a rummage sale at our church and have donated items to Goodwill, the animal shelter, the food pantry, a women’s shelter, and more. So yes, we do okay, but it’s not very consistent. I have been working hard to try to get our kids more involved with helping the community and an opportunity arose one weekend, so I took it.
A mass email was sent out at work, looking for people to help at a local food pantry, just to check expiration dates and sort food. I asked if my seven and 10 year-old would be able to help and was told that the 10 year-old should be able to sort food without a problem, but they don’t want anyone to get hurt since it’s in a warehouse. I heeded the caution and took the kids. Sorting food? No problem! Sorting is a skill my kids have! Their rooms may not look like it, but I have seen them sort socks, sports cards, and Pokemon cards, not to mention the fact that they have recently become interested in finding food expiration dates. This would be an easy way to help the community!
We arrived in good spirits after a great car sing-along. As we pulled into the parking lot, there was an open garage door with the sorters working diligently and very quietly. I mention this “quiet” thing because my kids are anything but quiet, and there was an unexplainably awkward and silent vibe in the room. We were met with stares and silence as we approached the sorting box. I knew only a couple of the people there, but that wasn’t a problem. Someone quickly explained the task and we dove in with little direction, as the task was pretty simple: Take cans out of the giant box in the middle, check the expiration dates, walk to put them in the appropriate boxes surrounding the giant box– corn with corn, Spam with meat, etc. We got to work.
If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant or even with other people in your own kitchen, you know that there is a flow to the movement. You are always moving, as are the people around you, and you are aware of where they are as to not get in their way. Yes, there are always mishaps, but you apologize and quickly keep moving. This was the way the dozen or so people were moving from box to box, quickly and quietly like drones set to do work for the people.
Grab a can, check the date, walk to a box without running into other people. Easy, right? Umm. No… Not so simple for someone without executive functioning skills… It quickly became clear that this did not come naturally for Cameron—he was the Goldilocks of food sorting. First, he was too fast, checking dates while turning and moving and never stopping to see who or what was around him. He ran into person after person, barely noticing when he pinballed off of them, leading me to offer constant direction and reminders while navigating the warehouse for myself as well. Next, he was taking his sweet time because he kept looking for specific foods that were not easy to find. He sat at the edge of the box, arms dangling in, pushing cans aside while looking for whatever particular unpopular item he wanted in that moment. I offered to help him—he finds the food and I put it away or I find one particular food and give it to him to run back and forth. He did not want this. It had to be his way, and he was soon making it clear that he was unhappy by whining about being thirsty, tired, because he didn’t like it, etc. I felt as if I needed to do double work to make up for the fact that Cameron was more than likely slowing down the operation. We took a break while they brought another box of food for us to unload. Cameron complained loudly enough for everyone to hear, while I tried to explain that this wasn’t something for him, but that we were helping other people.
We stayed for the second box, with Cameron still unloading it absent-mindedly with no attention to others—even those standing directly behind him. An added bonus during the second box, however, was the extra dose of arguing. Cameron’s sister, Amelia, said she wanted to find all of the tuna in the box (which was an easy-to-find item), and other people heard her so they’d hand her the tuna they found as well. Naturally, Cameron decided that he, too, was going to find the cans of tuna and make sure Amelia knew every time so she’d say, “No Cameron! I want to find the tuna!” I’m pretty sure I have the only kids in the world who can argue about cans of food to sort—tuna cans. Really?
After the second box was empty, I quietly gathered my kids, walked to the car, and imagined the change in energy and flow in the warehouse after my cherubim were gone. Was this a total disaster? No. Was it embarrassing? Slightly. Was it a learning experience? Definitely. This was very hard for Cameron.
What I’ve come to understand more recently is that whatever label Cameron has–ADHD, SPD, NLD– his main “disability” is in his executive functioning skills. Things that I don’t recall being “taught” to me have to be explicitly taught to him. Case in point, this same weekend, I was encouraging him to do the dishes, which is another entire set of difficulties. There’s the sensory issues that cause him to be disgusted with touching food from the plates, in addition to the fact that I literally had to walk him through every step of the dishwashing process, down to the hand he uses to hold the plate and the hand he uses to hold the scrubber. I thought I was being pretty patient walking him through a task for 15 minutes that would have taken me five minutes or less. Apparently, however, I didn’t sound as patient as I thought because he said, “I hope when I’m a grown-up, I don’t have a kid like me.” Heart. Broken. Seriously, I think a tear just snuck out of my eye as I wrote that.
I am not a sugar-coater (unless there’s something that literally is better coated in sugar, then I’ll sugar that sh*# up like crazy), so what I’m about to say may not be pretty, but it is the truth… It is hard to have a kid like him, and he knows it. But I would never, ever change who he is. Also, I don’t think it’s “easy” to be a parent to any child. Every child has his or her own struggles and it’s their parents’ jobs to help deal with those struggles. Everyone has their stuff… it’s what makes us who we are.
As this kid’s mom, I know that there is nothing I can do to “fix” his executive functioning skills, but I can help him excel at things I know he can do and walk him slowly through the things that are difficult so they become more routine. More than anything, I need patience. I need to not expect him to do difficult tasks when we’re in a hurry. I need to realize that if I want him to learn to do certain things, it’s going to take many more times for him than it took for me to learn, and I need to provide him with that time. I need to build up his self-esteem like crazy whenever I can, because he knows about his struggles and they make him feel different.
I hope Cameron does have a kid like Cameron when he’s a grown-up because who better to understand what it’s like to have this particular set of struggles than someone who’s gone through it? Even more than that, I hope Cameron has a child like him because any parent would be lucky have a child as sweet, caring, smart, and generous as Cameron.
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