Dear Savvy Auntie,

I am at my wit’s end, and after talking with my sisters, it’s a shared family concern. My  niece, B., age three, definitely has issues. One of my dad's sisters has Down Syndrome, and within my immediate family there is also ADHD, OCD, Sensory Integration Dysfunction, anxiety and depression, among others. Our savvy Aunt, along with my elementary school teacher sister and my pediatric secretary sister, have seen signs possible autism concerns and sensory issues since B. was born.

Along with the refusals to not cooperate with anything, B. shuts down when things get loud, or there's too much stimulation. She can't stand certain textures; I have the sensory issues so I can totally empathize with her on this.

The other problem in play is that my brother and sister-in-law are so passive as parents that there is no structure or guidance for B. For example, B. frequently vanishes out of sight, and even though they are aware they don't know where she is, they don't go looking for her.

When we're together as a family, neither parent does anything for B. She doesn't want to take a nap, so they don't put her down for one. She hasn't had a nap in about 18 months. They don't interact with her; it is left to the rest of us to pick up the slack. Consequently, she walks all over them, and throws tantrums, falling on the floor, screaming, yelling, when she doesn't get what she wants. She doesn't play well with her cousins; she prefers to be alone all the time. B. doesn't even know how to play dolls - dress the dolls, feed them, etc. I don't want to compare the kids, but she's not doing the normal three-year-old things that her cousins are doing.

During a recent church service, B. was discovered to be missing but they didn't go after her. I was busy with someone else and, hoping they would parent, I didn't do anything. It was a friend's husband who brought B. back inside, where she'd made it nearly to the road.

To her credit, my sister-in-law asked her doctor for an evaluation, but it only consisted of an intelligence portion and B. aced it. My sister-in-law is thrilled that Bella is "fine" and I seriously doubt that she'll do much more with it. B.’s mother is now on several medications related to stress because she can't handle my niece; she calls her the "demon child." At least the doctor told her to stop B. from watching TV; she will watch TV all day if allowed.

I also find it necessary to say that when B. comes to my house, she is a model child. No tantrums, no whining, no fussing. She does what I ask her to... within reason. I expect a child to be disobedient and B. is not the exception when she's alone with me, but it’s nothing like when she's with her parents.

My need for help is this: my mother, sisters, and I are ready to pounce and say something to the effect of "stand up and parent!" and "find a behavioral assessment." I am the closest to my sister-in-law and I don't want to attack her. My brother is the type of guy who will do the opposite of what you tell him to do, so I need a way to broach the subject without the entire family coming to blows. B. needs some type of help and I can't handle it. I don't feel like I should handle it.

What can I do? How can I help without meddling?

Auntie C.

Dear Auntie C.,

I, too, am concerned! B.’s wandering is acting out her feelings to get away and can be quite dangerous. It seems that your brother and sister-in-law are in desperate need of professional help.

The best service is the Early Intervention Program (1-800-522-5005). They will come to the home, do a full developmental evaluation and do therapy two or three times a week as needed in the home…all free.

Since it doesn’t seem you brother and his wife are open to family support and suggestions, if the wandering continues, you might have to call Child Protective Services in your community. Be aware this is a serious step and can lead to serious action on their part; so, ask what they think in this circumstance and prepare the family for a temporary removal of your niece to a foster family. I know this is harsh but a three-year-old wandering near the road is also a moment away from tragedy.

In the meantime, since she feels comfortable and behaves so much better in your home, try to take her there more often and for longer periods of time. Although your sisters sound tied up with work, is it possible for you to set up a schedule so that B. spends more time with them as well?

Do keep in mind that Down Syndrome is not hereditary, although OCD, ADD, and Sensory Sensitivity do have family patterns. In addition, tantrums, not playing with dolls, not napping, and not obeying are within normal for her age; it is the magnitude and frequency that is troubling.

Keep being the perceptive, loving Auntie you are! She is soaking that up even if it doesn’t show quite yet. Lucky B. to have you!

Best of Luck,
Natalie Robinson Garfield

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