Ordinary Families, Special Children: A Systems Approach to Childhood Disability, Third Edition, by M. Seligman and R. B. Darling. New York: Guilford Press, 2007.
It has been 10 years since the publication of the second edition of Ordinary Families, Special Children. The past decade, spanning the transition from one millennium to another, was not stagnant with regard to disabilities. The Americans With Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, was implemented throughout the decade. Professionals in the field grappled with how to define mental retardation and whether we should even use that phrase. As a society, we have moved away from capital punishment for adults with intellectual disability and have seen the incidence of autism climb to 1 in 150 children. Given these and many other changes, it is certainly time for a new and updated edition of this text.
The third edition of Ordinary Families, Special Children resembles the earlier edition in many respects. It retains the family-systems focus that is central to understanding and working with families who have children with disabilities. The authors are to be commended for their recognition of the complexity of families and the multiple interrelationships that are characteristic of them. This approach is consistent with their backgrounds in clinical psychology (Seligman) and sociology (Darling). It is unfortunate, however, that the scholarly research base they had access to is often not systems oriented. Rather, inferences about family are frequently made based on the report of one parent family member, almost always the mother (Glidden & Schoolcraft, 2007). The database on mothers is substantial; the database on families is scant. Seligman and Darling recognize this disparity and alert the reader that it is the mother's perspective that dominates. They do, however, attempt to ameliorate this imbalance by including separate chapters on other family members, one each on fathers, siblings, and grandparents.
Like the earlier edition, this volume continues to be oriented to practitioners, with the final section of the book, “Approaches to Intervention,” containing three chapters that will be of special interest to the practice professional. However, it is not only in this last chapter that there is material relevant to the individual who works with children and their families. For example, a particular strength of this volume is its attention to cultural diversity in the first section on conceptual frameworks. Every day we are reminded that the United States is increasingly multicultural and multinational. For example, it is estimated that in Montgomery County, Maryland, an affluent suburb of Washington, DC, approximately 27% of the residents were born outside the United States and that 122 different languages are spoken in the homes of the children in the public schools (Joint County Gang Prevention Task Force, 2004). Thus, practitioners who work with families need to be professional partners with parents who may speak little or no English, who worship in ways that are often difficult for many Christian Americans to understand, and whose views on disability differ substantially from those of mainstream America.
Seligman and Darling prepare the practitioner for this role. In Chapter 3, they address issues related not only to different ethnic, racial, and religious groups but to families of diverse composition, such as single parents, stepparents, and gay and lesbian parents. This chapter has some particularly welcome sections. For example, in addition to the usual and appropriate attention given to African American families, Latino families are described in general terms but also recognized as having different national origins, with separate sections on Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans. Asian Americans are also treated on the basis of country of origin, and the sections on Muslim Americans and Amish families, although brief, at least recognize the existence of individuals with these beliefs, values, and behaviors that are sometimes different from the mainstream.
Given the richness of this book's content and the amount of empirical and anecdotal detail in it, the neglected elements do not do great damage. However, it is important to point them out, because the interested reader may need to supplement this volume with material that complements its coverage. Two domains that may be missed by many readers are a lifespan approach and attention to specific causes and levels of disability.
Seligman and Darling focus their efforts on children and their families. This is a legitimate choice, but, of course, development does not end in adolescence. Fifty years ago, many children with disabilities were not likely to survive childhood; now, it is likely that they will live to be elderly. For example, although the life expectancy of individuals with Down syndrome is still considerably lower than that of individuals without disabilities, many persons with Down syndrome will live to Age 60 or older. Thus, a lifespan approach is more essential than it once was, and even practitioners who specialize in families with children need to appreciate that the parenting role may last for more than half a century, that siblings are more likely than they once were to be involved with their brothers and sisters when they are both adults, and that individuals with disabilities may experience the deaths not only of their grandparents but also their parents. Although a new chapter on adolescence and adulthood has been added to this edition, its focus is almost exclusively on the development of the identity of the individual with disabilities rather than on the role of other family members. One book cannot do it all, of course, and so the neglect of later ages is perhaps a necessary trade off for the breadth of coverage during the childhood period.
A second limitation of this book makes it a poor choice for the reader who wants to delve into any one specific disability. Since the first edition of the book in 1989, many genetically based disabilities have been identified, and even behavioral research has increasingly taken a genotype–phenotype approach to understanding children and their families (Dykens, 1999; Hodapp, 1999). With rare exception, Seligman and Darling are general in their approach, providing information that is applicable to as many children and their families as possible. Chapter 7, “Effects on the Family as a System,” is typical. The initial 18 pages address important concepts, such as the stages of adapting to the reality of parenting a child with disability, the stigma associated with it, and the challenges associated with family structures such as divorce and single parenthood. In the latter part of this chapter, Seligman and Darling turn their attention to families of children with specific impairments. This focus, however, is brief, with only single paragraphs on autism, blindness, physical impairments, and attention-deficit–hyperactivity disorder.
In summary, the role of families in the development of children with disabilities is more important than it once was, when recommendations for institutionalization were commonly offered, even if not commonly taken. Furthermore, the importance of this role needs to be balanced with the changing composition of families; the increasing participation of mothers in the workforce; the expectations for improvement in school performance, including for children in special education; and the myriad of other changes that influence the concerns of families in the 21st century. Milton Seligman and Roslyn Benjamin Darling have charted a navigable course through this changing landscape, helping to guide us with summaries of scholarly work as well as plentiful narratives from family members who are traveling the terrain.