Hopefully by now most of you have seen Finding Dory. If you have not, I highly suggest it! And I will try not to place too many spoilers in this post. The story centers around Dory’s desire to find her parents as bits and pieces of memories fill in her brain. But the deeper story is that of acceptance. Acceptance of a fish that is different, a fish who is unique, a fish who wants nothing more than to fit in despite her memory challenges. Dory does not just want the world to accept her, she struggles to accept herself. This message echoed so true for me as an autism service provider.
I see this struggle every day with the kids who walk through my door. I first see it with their parents. Parents who want nothing but the best for their child and are trying everything they can to make that happen. Parents who want to go to the movies with their child without having people stare. Parents who want their child to be invited to the latest class birthday party. Parents who want their child’s hand-flapping, rocking, yelling, spinning not to be judged or criticized. Dory’s parents want this too. They want their little girl to be safe and accepted.
Then there is the struggle of self-acceptance. Dory gets down on herself when she can’t “get something right” and I see this all the time with my kids. They are often used to feeling less capable, feeling different, feeling left out, and immediately beat themselves up when something does not go perfectly. All we want as caregivers and parents is to make them feel safe. Make them feel proud. Make them feel successful. To give them the opportunities to succeed and feel accepted in the world around them.
In the movie, this happens for Dory. She learns to accept her uniqueness and the challenges it presents by meeting other friends with disabilities. I think this is the best message of the movie. Children with autism may be different, sure, but so is anyone with any type of struggle or challenge in life. One of the greatest takeaways from this movie is the persistence of everyone around Dory to give her the tools she needs to succeed. I feel like that showed a great representation of my job.
Every day, I am presenting children with tools they can use in the real world to help them succeed, to help them grow, to help them feel accepted. We use songs to help store information in long-term memory, much like Dory’s “just keep swimming” tune. I teach coping skills for my clients to use in times of distress, like when they’re lost in the middle of the ocean. We constantly teach the same skills in different ways, hoping that something sticks and the child can rely on their knowledge in a time of need. We do all of this, and we are never sure if it works.
For Dory, it does work! As bits and pieces of her memory come back, we learn about all of the strategies and techniques her family used to keep her safe and teach her important life skills. I think this was a shiny beam of hope for all of the caregivers, teachers, and therapists out there. Sometimes we work with a child for 2 or 3 years and we are never sure if the skills we worked on will stick. We never know if the tools we have given them to be safe will take effect in their hour of need. Though real life is not always like a Pixar film, I think the message remains true. “Just keep swimming.” Just keep trying and teaching. In the end, something will stick.
If you’re not a caregiver or a parent of a child with special needs, these messages can still be a part of your life. We all need to work harder to support the communities around us, to embrace our differences and challenges, to help each other grow. The next time you see a child sitting in the corner of the jungle gym talking to himself and rocking back and forth, don’t just have your child avoid him. Try and engage with that child, that family. All he wants is to be acknowledged and accepted. All that family wants is to keep their child happy and safe. We can all work together to teach others the power of acceptance and to “just keep swimming” through all of the challenges we face!
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