Dancing Along The Spectrum
Nineteen years ago, I was still oblivious to the signs of something called autism. My knowledge of this condition was very limited. At the same time, my second child was born. My beautiful, peaceful daughter. I had no idea the journey into that unknown sphere was about to begin.
Now she has made it through high school and currently is in her first year of college– living in a dorm. Amazing!! Diagnosed with Aspergers, this is a person who spent most of her life preferring to be alone, living in the shadows, never going out with friends or taking risks of any kind. She is the ultimate definition of a worrier. She was also fearful of people due to so many episodes of non-acceptance and avoided groups or socializing of any kind. Nowadays, she has 4 roommates, spends weekends having “girls day out”, has gotten a tattoo, writes essays, stays up late, and has dyed her hair. Oh my!! Granted, these are typical events for a college kid– but these are huge leaps for her. This thrills me! (Well, not so much the tattoo–although she chose one that says “Hope“, saying it represented how she has always hoped for friends and fun and now she is finally not afraid to jump in there and experience life….so I actually LOVE that tattoo now).
Having a child on the spectrum has taught me many things which have helped me be a better teacher…a better parent…a better person. Here are five of them:
1. Be a self-esteem +1 ‘ er.
People with autism are often the victim of bullying. Their uniqueness isn’t always appreciated and understood. This can have a devastating effect on self-esteem. To offset that, try to involve them in things that will help build confidence. And be open to anything. We signed up for Taekwando, where she went on to earn a green belt. Who knew my shy, quiet, introverted daughter would be good at martial arts?
2. Recognize and celebrate individual passions.
My daughter never watched cartoons or played with toys. She spent her time watching The Weather Channel and building weather stations in the back yard, where she collected data. She can look at the sky and name every type of cloud, she can tell you the latest tropical storms, she can discuss the weather patterns forming across the eastern seaboard or the latest update on a tropical depression forming off the coast. Though not always a favorite topic of her peers, it was through this interest that she learned to read, calculate, make predictions, understand cause and effect, and draw conclusions. Not to mention find places she wants to one day visit (or never visit). Recognize passions and show you accept them for who they are. They need the positive vibes.
3. Initiate “check-ins” often.
My daughter was never going to ask a teacher for clarification. If she received a bad grade on an assignment, her embarrassment over that and lack of confidence would result in her just putting the paper away and moving on. Some teachers saw this as her “not taking initiative” in improving her grades. That wasn’t the case. She would suffer great anxiety over those things, but that happened internally. Communication is her biggest area of struggle, so if you can initiate the conversations around this, please do. Not everyone is comfortable having discussions, much less initiating them.
4. Learning styles matter.
Some kids love to collaborate. They share ideas, they enjoy working with others. But not all students are like this. My daughter prefers to work alone. She also expresses herself much more successfully through writing and technology, which is why I was so thankful for those teachers who allowed her to choose how to learn, and demonstrate that learning. Not everyone should be required to speak in front of a group or conduct an interview to gather data for a survey; if the assignment can be adjusted to accommodate styles and preferences, while maintaining the integrity of the task, please do!
5. Small acts of kindness have far reaching effects.
My daughter was fortunate to have some of the most outstanding teachers during her years in school, but one thing that really helped was that she also always seemed to have that one teacher who went above and beyond. It might not have even been a teacher on her schedule, but it was an adult in the building that always spoke to her, looked out for her, asked her how she was doing and really wanted to hear the answer. One example that sticks out: she never wanted to eat in the cafeteria because of the crowds and noise—so this one teacher would write her a pass to allow her to come to her classroom during lunch. That simple act made such a difference in how her days went-where before she would start feeling the anxiety of lunch and it was only 7:00 am!
For someone with autism, to have to navigate the social minefield of the high school cafeteria (who to sit with, how to approach the group and ask to sit…) well, that’s almost too much to bear. There are so many things which we don’t even realize are so stressful for others. Try to be sensitive to all the little nuances because they might be huge challenges for them.
Finally, try to avoid assumptions. While there are many common characteristics or traits, no two people on the spectrum are the same. Get to know individual talents, skills, and struggles because there are many stereotypes and they are just that: stereotypes.
Even after 19 years, I don’t have all the answers on raising or teaching those with autism, and I know I never will. But these are some of the things I have picked up that have helped me (and her), and I wanted to share with you.
Thank you to all the teachers, parents, friends and strangers that have gone out of their way to show kindness and love to my daughter. You have mattered.