“Move out of your comfort zone and your comfort zone will follow.”
As a mom of a child on the spectrum and as a special educator, I have daily opportunities to view the world through the eyes of students with autism. All the books, seminars, and professional developments cannot replace the perspective of students and adults with autism.
So much of what I do at home and work begs these questions, “Are we really helping? Are we really teaching and parenting our children on the spectrum in a way that will give them lifelong opportunities with jobs and relationships?”
With the rates of autism climbing for various reasons, these are increasingly important questions to answer. These are questions being asked around the world.
This is why I recently asked Bonnello for an interview. (Read more about that here.) His answers were insightful.
For this three-part series, I will be relaying his thoughts as they apply to parents and teachers of students with autism.
Today’s post is specifically geared towards parents.
I have chosen to leave Bonnello’s words in their complete context in the transcript below.
Teachitmama: What would you tell parents who are just learning about the signs of autism?
Bonnello: First things first, it is not a scary thing. We seem to live in a culture where parents of young children are taught to fear the word “autism”, and it’s often used as a synonym for “achievement limits.”
Well, speaking as an autistic man who’s going through his third university degree, I don’t personally think that’s accurate. And even among those of us who have learning difficulties, I’ve seen autistic youngsters learn about their own strengths, work on them and achieve some pretty amazing things. Just like the rest of us.
Additionally, “autism” is a single word that doctors use to describe a huge variety of brains out there. And even with the increasing public understanding of autism, it’s understandable that parents worry when they hear ‘autism’ simply because it’s difficult to know what it would mean for their particular child.
To them I say: try not to worry as much as your brain is telling you to!
Your child will still be their own kind of person with their own set of strengths and weaknesses and their own traits of awesomeness, and the word “autism” will not rob them of that.
Teachitmama: What are the best ways to encourage children with autism?
Bonnello: A lot of the methods of encouraging autistic children follow the same principles as encouraging anyone else: children of every kind of neurology love being believed in, love being praised, and so on.
Beyond that, it’s a matter of meeting them halfway. A child on the autism spectrum may feel deeply uncomfortable with doing things that non-autistic children do, but may lack the ability to express why. Knowing which things make them feel uncomfortable (and why) will help you to know which areas your encouragement is more likely to succeed.
Teachitmama: What academic and behavioral challenges did you have? What supports helped you the most?
Bonnello: Academically I was fine, unless the teachers were unclear in saying specifically what they meant. Then I got things wrong and was given the impression that it was my fault.
Behaviourally I was the kindest, most pleasant boy you could work with, but I was very inappropriate at times. I often use the example of taking the last potato at dinner when it’s obvious nobody else wants it, but being told afterwards that you did something morally wrong- even though that’s completely illogical and the worse thing would be to let it go to waste.
My inappropriateness consisted of a hundred different times when the logical way of doing things was at odds with the way people are supposed to do things.
Being told off by Dad stopped me from doing those things, but I didn’t always understand why they were wrong. Sadly, the best support I had was growing into my twenties and learning how people actually work- looking for hidden motives and so on. And life lessons about people’s oddities that I should have been given whilst growing up.
Teachitmama: Is it important for students to know if they have autism? If so, at what age?
Bonnello: It depends how much their autism affects them. Tell a student who’s barely affected at all and it may damage their self-perception. Withhold the information from a student who struggles and it could destroy their self-esteem.
I wrote a whole article about the subject here: http://autisticnotweird.com/when-should-i-tell-my-child/.
As for the right age, I’ll repeat those two lines from the article.
“Tell them when knowing about their autism will actually help them. Not one moment after; but not one moment before either.“
Teachitmama: Do you feel that being aware of your strengths and weaknesses leads to increased progress? If so, why?
Bonnello: Absolutely. If you’re not made aware of your strengths, how can you play to them? Without knowing your strengths, how can you maintain your self-esteem when people are pointing out your weaknesses? Without knowing how good you are, how can you grow up thinking there’s a place in the world for someone like you?
Knowing your weaknesses is important too. Playing to your weaknesses rather than your strengths may be hugely damaging, but not knowing your weaknesses is like walking downstairs blindfolded without even knowing the blindfold exists.
People should know where they struggle, then commit to learning how to struggle less with them. (And never place more value on them than on their strengths.)
As a side note, we have a lovely euphemism for “weaknesses” in the teaching profession. We called them “areas for development”.
Euphemism aside, it’s a much more productive way of looking at them!
Bonnello will be the first one to say that he is not a parent yet.
So the question remains for us parents, are we helping?
Are we shaping the environment in a way that allows our children with autism to develop their skills? I’ll let you decide based on what you see in your homes and communities.