Progress vs. Development

Ryan's first first day of school
Ryan, on the occasion of his first first day of school in 2003.

Yesterday was the first day of school for our family. We made the kids pose for the obligatory photo and then sent our newly minted seventh- and eight-graders off to middle school.

We’ve been at this school thing for a while now. Counting Ryan’s years in special services preschool, yesterday was his twelfth first day of school.

And in so many ways, the child we saw off to school yesterday is different from the one we sent off one or two or five or 11 years ago.

The easy temptation is to label that “progress.’ In fact, I have written a lot of blog posts aboutprogressrecently. But now I’m wondering if that’s the correct word. “Progress” implies an end goal to meet or peers to catch up to. Ryan is progressing — rapidly, in fact. We’re seeing things regularly that would not have been possible even a year or two ago.

But the more I think about “progress” and what it implies, the more I’m not comfortable with that word as a description of what we’re seeing. What we are seeing is development. To call it “progress” suggests there is only one path, and that Ryan was lagging behind on it.

It’s taken me a long time to realize, and become comfortable with, the idea that Ryan is simply on his own timetable, developing towards the person he will ultimately be — unique brain wiring, remarkable skills, and challenges included.

A few months ago, I had coffee with a friend of a friend whose child was recently diagnosed on the spectrum. We talked about a lot of things. I was wary of not trying to sound like I had the “right” answers on anything. For as we all know, autism is one word but there is no one autism.

But there was one piece of advice I felt strongly about, and it was to abandon following others’ timetables for his child’s development. The sooner you do that, the sooner you’ll be able to cherish the accomplishments that are bound to occur.

Ryan is developing at an incredibly rapid pace. Physical, mental, emotional changes — most of which are, yes, typical for his age — that are too obvious to miss. Yet, he’s still on his own pace.

And you know what? We’re OK with that. Now that’s progress.

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