For a kid with severe autism, Tosh is pretty photogenic. His school photos aren’t Hollywood headshot quality, but overall, he takes great school pictures.
Except this Spring. As you can see above, to the untrained eye, his Spring school photo was pretty bad.
But for this autism mom, that picture is my very favorite.
He’s standing up straight and still, with his arms down to his sides. If you’re intimately familiar with autism, you know that alone is an achievement. As Tosh’s mom, I see even more.
His right hand is balled up into a little fist, with his thumb on the inside. That’s a stress indicator – a sign he’s trying as hard as he can to control his body, and it’s not easy.
And then there’s that smile. Or attempt at a smile. Actually, it’s the eyebrows. Those eyebrows are saying, I’m already smiling, but the photographer keeps telling me to smile, so I’ll try even harder.
And oh, that snaggletooth. Both of his front teeth were loose, and one had a permanent tooth growing in on top of it. He had let me try a few times to pull it out, but that sucker held on for dear life. Yes, it’s hideous looking, but it reminds me that he actually let me reach into his mouth and try unsuccessfully to pull out a tooth. That would traumatize anyone. But then he let me try a second and third time! That’s unheard of for someone with major sensory issues. (Naturally, it fell out by itself while he was eating pizza with his BFF Peri just a few days later.)
I could look at this photo and see something negative – my poor little boy, who has to try harder than all the other kids just to smile for a photo. Smiling! Something that should be so easy.
But that’s not what I see. Not even close.
Instead, I see a boy who is only 7 years old, but already knows how to dig deep. This kid has a work ethic that is stronger than many adults’. He spends all day in school, being constantly challenged to learn despite so many difficulties. Then, he goes to ABA therapy for 3 hours after school, and rarely do I hear of any behavioral issues.
How many adults work a full day and then go to their second job without complaining?
He also behaves comparatively well in public. I’ve heard parents observe that in many ways, he’s better behaved than most neurotypical children. That’s not by accident. Over the past couple of years, I’ve purposely taken him everywhere with me – the store, restaurants, the bank, even on vacations that require air travel. All of these places were difficult at first, but with time and considerable effort, we learned how he can adapt.
At home, he picks up after himself, does age appropriate chores (folds laundry, helps me carry groceries in from the car and assists with pet care) and has learned to entertain himself quietly (most of the time) when I have to take client calls. He’s even started to take the initiative and help out without being asked, doing things that are beyond his regular chores. Sometimes he surprises me with help I haven’t even thought to teach him. He’s figuring things out for himself.
A 2014 survey, which is often quoted, revealed that only 28% of parents ask their children to do household chores. And yet, study after study after study says children who are given responsibility achieve more as adults.
Why give children responsibility? To develop work ethic.
Autistic kids already have a strong work ethic. They exercise it every single minute or every single day.
I’m also raising him to have a growth mindset. We use this social story almost every day: I didn’t want to do it, but I did it anyway, and now I feel so proud! That sequence almost always turns his protests into a smile, and even when he begrudgingly “does it anyway”, he always smiles when I ask him if he feels proud of himself.
I don’t teach Tosh that he has to work hard because work is hard and life is hard and everybody just has to deal with it. Life doesn’t have to be hard. Life is full of opportunities to learn and grow and experience amazing, wonderful and exciting things. Life is one opportunity after another to foster pride and self-worth.
I reinforce all the time that because he works so hard, he’s able to do things he loves – eat out at restaurants, go to Disneyland, slide on the big slides at water parks, etc. Rather than only remind him that he has to work hard when faced with a non preferred activity, I often point out the benefits of hard work while he’s enjoying the fruit of his labors. Usually, it’s something like “I’m so glad we came to this water park. I’m really having fun with you. You’re doing such a good job following directions. You! Are! Awesome!”
Someday, my severely autistic kid may achieve more than his neurotypical peers because he has invaluable qualities like work ethic, perseverance, a positive attitude and an overall zest for life. And if he doesn’t achieve more, at least he’ll be happy and fulfilled.
Autism or not, isn’t that what we all want for our children?
(But seriously, isn’t that photo just the cutest thing ever?)
Heather Anderson is a blissfully happy autism mom and lover of life in Southern California who is on a mission to help autism parents rediscover their happy place.
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