Help! My Son Thinks His Mentally Disabled Sister Will Be a Distraction at His Graduation.

Advice on manners and morals.
April 16 2013 6:15 AM

All About Me

In a live chat, Prudie advises a woman whose son has asked for his mentally disabled sister to be watched separately during his graduation.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Q. Disability at Graduation: I have three children, my oldest ("Ryan") is incredibly bright and graduating college in a month. My youngest ("Amy") has physical and mental disabilities with the mental age of about 4. When Ryan was home for Easter he talked to my husband and me and requested we get somebody to watch Amy at his college graduation. We said we would think about it and have been unable to make a decision. On one hand, Amy can be very difficult to handle in crowds and has a hard time empathizing with others and giving them the attention they might want or need. There are also only two tickets for handicap accessible seating, which means my family would not be able to sit together during the ceremony. Ryan was 6 when Amy was born and he has always been loving and compassionate toward her, so I think this stems from a desire to have this event be about him, not about all the logistics that surround a handicapped person. On the other hand, I am afraid that this will set a terrible precedent. What other events will Amy be excluded from, weddings, funerals, our 50th wedding anniversary party? How would we explain this to Amy, who is very sensitive? My husband and I would appreciate any guidance you have.

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A: It sounds as if no matter what you do someone will have to sit separately from your group with Amy. Presumably that would be either you or your husband. Even if you two can't sit together, Ryan will still have both his parents watching and applauding as he walks across the stage. But as I understand it, what Ryan is asking for is that a friend or caretaker watch over Amy, who has trouble with crowds, so that both you and your husband can attend his big day without distractions. That doesn't seem like such a terrible request or precedent. Amy needs special attention and a patient caretaker could be just the right person to help her through experiences that make her agitated. This would let Amy to be there for milestone events while also allowing the rest of you to fully participate in them. You say Ryan has been a loving and compassionate brother. Sometimes the needs of the typical kids in a family with a special needs child can be subsumed by the amount of attention the special child requires. Ryan is not trying to exclude his sister, but he is telling you what he would like on this unique day in his life and it's worth talking this out with him. If you take his suggestion, it seems you would be able to explain to Amy that there aren't enough tickets for everyone to sit together. So she and whomever you choose will have seats with the best view so that she can cheer on her big brother.

Dear Prudence: Kinky Mom

Q. Wedding Speech: I love my dad but have always felt he has singled me out my entire life as the good child. He's always singing my praises which of course I am thankful for, but it makes me uncomfortable, especially around my other siblings and when we are in public. During my cousin's wedding, he was making a very informal speech at brunch and even said I was his favorite daughter, right in front of my sister (and my bro, and our significant others). He felt awful and immediately apologized, and then I felt awful too. I still do. I am very nervous about what he is planning to say at my upcoming wedding, but don't want to hurt his feelings on how to bring up this topic to him. Any advice on how best to approach my dad about this?

A: How refreshing to hear from a favored child who sees how destructive this special attention is. When it comes to the feelings of his children your father has apparently spent a lifetime trampling on them. You, golden child, are in the best position to point this out to him. Use your special status to have a bracing conversation with your father. Say that after the embarrassment at the brunch, you want to make sure nothing like that happens again. You can say his favoritism is not a favor to you—it has only complicated your relationship with your own siblings. Tell him you love him and look forward to him toasting you at your wedding, but you want him to make sure at your wedding, and always, that he remembers he has three children whom he should love equally.

Q. Thanks for the "Big Girl" Clothes... but No Thanks!: I have a co-worker that recently lost about 50 pounds. I am very happy for her, and I applaud her efforts and results. Earlier this week she offered up some of her "big girl" clothes to me. I was taken aback at first, and then was gracious and just said “OK.” She said she had shorts that were too big for her now, but she thought I would like them. This is a working relationship; we talk about some personal family stuff, but we have no friendship outside of the office. This woman can also be a bit passive-aggressive regarding her weight loss, in that she brings food in and makes up plates for the rest of us to eat. The food she brings in is hardly low-fat, so she enjoys trying to sabotage our own weight-loss efforts. Needless to say, if she offers food, I turn it down or throw it away. So, what should I do with these clothes? The message to me is: "Hi, I've lost weight, so here are my 'fat' clothes to wear." Am I overreacting?

A: Your co-worker should hang on to her big girl shorts. It certainly sounds as if she hasn't resolved her relationship to food if she's bringing in fattening platters for the office. She might soon be finding her "small girl" shorts are too snug. Unless you were truly interested in her hand-me-downs you should have simply declined the offer. If she comes in with bags of her cast-offs tell her your wardrobe is taken care of and she should feel free to donate her old clothes to charity.

Q. Re: Disability at Graduation: I would like to comment on this letter, as I am also a typical child in a family with a special-needs sibling. What Ryan is expressing is a totally normal feeling and thank you for not making him feel guilty. Another alternative here is to have a celebratory dinner afterward that includes Amy, but keep the ceremony for the rest of the family. This is what my family did at my law school graduation because there were similar concerns with behavior, seating, and logistics.

A: Thank so much for this perspective. Yes, another important thing to consider is that graduations, while wonderful, are also among the world's most tedious events and it may be a kindness not to make Amy sit through one.

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