This American Life had a story recently about how people’s expectations can actually significantly affect behaviours. For example, if you are told that an animal is of low intelligence, that animal will actually perform more poorly on seemingly objective tests than an animal you think is smart. The same sorts of effects have been shown on humans. Another mother has done an excellent summary of the podcast, though I do recommend you listen to it.
The idea that people’s expectations affect you is actually a terrifying prospect when you have a child with a highly visible disability. But I have seen this in action with C. C is assessed by quite a few medical professionals, and often when she’s being “tested” she’ll often blink passively and smile. On the other hand, when she’s with the therapists who actually have expectations and goals, who sometimes think she’s capable of more than I do, she can perform. When we’re with friends who know her social little personality, they interact with her and she calls out “Hi!” and respond with a nod or a “Naaah” to questions. When we meet new people, many of them seem to assume that since she is quite physically involved, she is not very aware. And she reflects that back – or rather, she reflects nothing back.
I realised too that the way that I interact with C is very different than her siblings. When she does something, it’s a marvellous feat with many cheers. When B does something, I’m more restrained, because it’s expected of a typical child. I’ve been trying to tone this down – instead of cheering like I’m at the Olympics, I’m experimenting with being a bit more directive, and just a bit more… normal. “C’mon, pick up the spoon.” “Help me put on your shoes.” Sometimes these aren’t even things I think she can do – and she surprises me. Today I put a drink in front of her and said “Here you go.” She grabbed the mug and brought it to her mouth. Not much got in, but it’s a start. And I noticed that after encouraging her to help with her shoes a few times, she now reaches for the straps without prompting.
This idea about expectations also makes you question many other assumptions about disability. For example, as CP parents we are often told that by age five or so, CP is “decided.” If you’re considered moderately or highly involved you don’t get better. If anything it gets worse. The brain is less plastic. And yet, there are many anecdotal stories of people experiencing improvements from brain injuries even in adulthood. The same reporters who did the story on This American Life have a new podcast, and one of the first episodes is about a boy who, after an illness, went into a coma-like state. His parents were told he had the intelligence of a three-month old. And yet, after years of living like that, he emerged and made a tremendous recovery. The common factor in these apparent miracles is that the individual met someone who didn’t have preconceived notions of what they could achieve.