What’s the difference between a good joke and a bad joke timing.

Wait… give it a few seconds… Got it?

Timing is important. It’s the difference between conception and mis(sed) conception, between sausages sizzled and sausages frizzled, between stepping onto the tram or running up to the stop as the tram sails past. Or maybe even the difference between life and death.

Consciously and subconsciously, we think about timing as we teach our children certain skills and consider their readiness to learn them. You don’t teach a newborn how to eat with a knife and fork. No-one considers driving lessons for their eight year old. Handling a sharp knife, going to the shops alone, taking public transport – whatever it is, you’re always judging whether that person is physically and mentally capable of learning the skill or performing the task, and the age-appropriateness of doing so.

Yet in the world of special needs, timing takes on a heightened significance. Many things would be age-appropriate for our special children, but perhaps they lack the physical and/or mental capacity to do them. Sometimes this is clearly apparent. At other times, it’s less easy to discern.

Timing, autonomy and applying skills to unpredictable environments

It’s entirely age-appropriate for my 17 year old daughter to be taking public transport independently, but is she sufficiently capable? Even if she learns the route, how effectively will she manage her own safety? How much should I hover? Should I even contemplate letting her go alone? Will she be safe getting on and off the tram? Car drivers are notoriously unreliable at stopping for trams.

We have done a lot of travel training in the past to specific stops along a limited number of routes. This doesn’t mean that my daughter can generalise this training to be able to get off at any old stop along that route. Nor does it mean that if she misses her stop, she’d be capable of finding her way back. Would she be able to push through passengers in a packed tram to get off? Have I built in enough fail-safes?

Have I? Can she? Should I? Would she? What if…?

I had to wrestle with these questions recently. A concentrated bout of travel training had led to Dancing Wombat walking to the tram in the morning, taking the tram, getting off at the right stop then walking to school (with me shadowing her in the car at every point).

I had never seen her argue her case like this before. Every point I raised, she rebutted. Yes, she has special needs and I worry like anything about her safety, but these are not of themselves sufficient reasons to deny her opportunities.

Likewise in the afternoon, she had left with the “independent travellers”, kept pace with them along the bike path route (only to use when travelling with the group), and successfully trammed back to her stop before walking home. She was highly motivated to do this every day, despite the longer walk at each end. “Maybe I won’t need to take the bus again!” she enthused.

The second morning of the second week of this concentrated practice saw us in the school reception, arguing, as I asked her to put her phone with the “Bus” phones, not the “Independent travellers”.

“But I want to go myself tonight,” she insisted.

“No, you have to go on the bus tonight. I have swimming after school for your brother. I won’t be around if anything happens.” (As she habitually keeps her phone turned off and keeps the volume volume muted even when it’s on, I’m still not confident about being able to reach her on the phone.)

“But I kept up with the other kids yesterday,” she pointed out.
True. But I was still hesitant.
“Maybe tomorrow. I just want to do a bit more practice with you. You need to take the bus tonight.”

She was determined, though. “But the boys (her other two brothers) will be at home. I want to do it myself.”

Boy, this was tough. I was still not completely confident about her safety, although I was pretty sure that she’d get off at the right stop. I was also confident that she knew her way. It was all the other variables that I couldn’t control that held me back. And yet…I had never seen her argue her case like this before. Every point I raised, she rebutted. Yes, she has special needs and I worry like anything about her safety, but these are not of themselves sufficient reasons to deny her opportunities.

After all, as some of you will know, much of what I do with my daughter is designed to maximise her ability to be independent. It’s just that, well, this morning I didn’t feel ready to let her go.

The school receptionist looked on in amusement as we haggled. “Hard to cut the apron strings?” she sympathised. Ooh yeah, baby. It sure was.

In the end, I capitulated. She was joyous. I was nervous. I didn’t feel I could ask her to text me when she got on the tram – there would just be too many things to manage. She struggles to write texts in the car because of the motion. In a tram? Ha! No way.

“Please call me as soon as you get home, okay?” I begged her.

She gave me the thumbs up and a big grin.

Between 3.15 and 4.00 that afternoon, I was a jangle of nerves. In the end, I didn’t take my youngest to swimming, as there was a different teacher. Swimming with him is hard enough on a good day with his regular teacher – it was no point even trying today. So I got home shortly after Dancing Wombat should have arrived home.

“Is she here?” I called down the hall to her oldest brother, as I raced towards her bedroom door.

Sure enough, there she was, an enormous smile on her face. Phew! Relief for me, triumph for her. The timing had worked – for today. It worked the following day. However, the day after that – well, it was a different matter, but that story can wait for now.

Timing sometimes takes a step of faith – even a leap of faith. My daughter was well-rewarded today for her faith in her ability to manage. This is another small step towards increasing her self-esteem and self-confidence. It boosts her ability to see herself as someone who can do things independently, and not always need to rely on others for assistance. I’m a big believer in neuroplasticity, and I feel that the more she can do for herself, the more she’ll be able to do for herself.

So with our special needs children, yes – timing is different. It takes longer, and the letting go is so, so much harder. But the reward is sweet.

Until next time, Happy Wombatting!