Why you should never tell a parent to 'just wait and see'

Julia Coorey, pictured with son Michael, is glad she voiced her concerns.
Julia Coorey, pictured with son Michael, is glad she voiced her concerns. Photo: Supplied

When I became a parent I learned to fear many things – trucks, motorbikes, sunny streets with no shade, any kind of renovations and especially lawnmowers.

The one thing I feared more than any of these things? Parenting advice.

Just about the only thing in life that is freely given in large supply to a mother is such advice. Luckily we are usually so sleep deprived we just take it, knowing that one day when we are over forty we will get to do the same thing to another bedraggled young woman in yoga pants and a t-shirt.

Most of it doesn't do any harm if you ignore it, but one piece has done, to my knowledge, a lot of harm to a lot of children.

I should mention at this stage that my son has always developed strangely. He rolled over when he was ten months old and didn't walk or crawl until 15 months. Yet whenever I mentioned that I was concerned about this I got the same lecture from every single person – the more kids they had, the more prone they were to saying these four deadly words: "Just wait and see".

"They all develop at their own pace. Just relax," they would say, rolling their eyes at yet another first time mum and her silly obsession with milestones and timelines.

"But he's not talking yet," I said.

"And he doesn't turn around when I say his name. He ignores all instructions. He doesn't play with toys. His favourite thing to do is wave flashcards in front of his face!"

After this I would always get a story from my parenting advisor about how their second cousin once removed didn't walk or talk until they were four and now they work for NASA.

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I have a very strong independent streak. Maybe because I was an only child for a long time, if anyone gives me advice on any topic, I have an immediate and very strong desire to do the opposite. I usually brutally repress this instinct of mine (this explain why I am still talking to most people in my family) and appear to be easy-going and relaxed, but when it comes to my child all bets are off.

Therefore despite the repeated lectures that I was over dramatising and over protective, I went to a pediatrician, had a big long talk, and my son was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism at the age of 19 months.

That showed them!

I know it is strange, but I was actually pretty happy with this news. This is not because I have a secret desire to torment small children, or because I have a sado-masochistic streak.

The way I saw it the average age of diagnosis of autism was 4 years old, and by the time my son would be that age he will have received intensive early intervention for 16 months. Even now, after only 8 months, he is so far ahead of where he was we are contemplating early admission to Harvard. Do they take nonverbal two-year-olds?

Throughout my time in the therapy centres, autism talks, conferences and just chats with parents it was that one common thing that they kept regretting. They all regretted that they actually listened to the "just wait and see" that was so casually thrown around by their aunts, nieces, cousins, mothers and grandmothers.

I don't understand where this advice comes from. If my son gets a slight sniffle and coughs twice, everyone immediately convinces me to take him to the doctor. And seek a second opinion. Possibly just go to the hospital to save time. But if I have a real concern – they pity me for being a first time parent, who knows nothing. They tell me not to worry, or to take him out more, or take him to playgroup.

So maybe next time you want to give the advice, think about it this way. Let's say the mother listens to you, and doesn't go, and there really is something wrong. Maybe the child will be diagnosed with a disease that much later, or a disability. Maybe they will simply learn to talk six months later and be very frustrated meanwhile because their needs aren't being met.

Or maybe she is totally wrong and you're totally right. Maybe – very possibly – she will come back from the pediatrician having wasted two hours and $500 on medical fees with a rueful smile.

What's worse? Wasting two hours on a consultation or wasting two years not getting a diagnosis?