Earlier this month, I attended the Talking About Curing Autism (TACA) National Conference in Costa Mesa, California. There were many highlights, but for me, meeting Temple Grandin and hearing her speak was a dream come true. She is just as amazing as you'd think.
I learned so much from her speech and have already put some of her suggestions into action. Here are five of my favorites.
1. Always assume competence.
It was interesting that I had just written about this right before attending the conference. Just because people with autism can't communicate that they know or understand something, doesn't mean that they don't. Instead of assuming they can't, always assume that they can. Assuming they don't know things or can't do things makes them aggressive, and rightly so. Who wouldn't be in a pissy mood if everyone treated you like an idiot all day long?
Tosh is always surprising me with what he can do. Just one month ago he showed me he knew how to drive. I had no idea he had the hand-eye coordination and the ability to handle all of the stimulation. Our kids will surprise us with what they know and what they can do if we let them.
2. Push them past their comfort zone.
It requires a strong will on the part of the parent to push an autistic kid beyond his or her comfort zone, but Dr. Grandin credited her mother's persistence as a big part of her success. She said her mother expected her to sit still and eat her meal at the family table and use good manners. She was also expected to play the part of hostess during family parties by greeting guests at the door, shaking their hands and providing them with drinks. She learned invaluable social skills doing these things, even though it was very difficult for her. Kids with autism are just like neurotypical kids - most must be pushed to achieve.
3. Try pastel paper.
I found this one very intriguing. Does your autistic child resist reading or writing? Tosh sure does. Dr. Grandin said many kids with autism have difficulty seeing black type on white paper. It hurts their eyes and gives them a headache. Tosh often looks out of the corner of his eye and stims with his fingers in front of his face - both signs that his vision is affected by sensory issues. I bought a ream of pastel copy paper this week and have started using it for the writing homework his teacher wants him to do. It's too soon to tell if it helps, but if he continues to do his writing homework with less resistance, I'm going to ask his teacher to start using pastel paper at school.
4. Leverage their interests.
It's often difficult for children with autism to learn using standard curriculum, but if they are allowed to pursue their interests, it can be used as a tool to help them develop academic skills. For example, one parent asked Dr. Grandin what she should do about her 9-year-old son, who does well in math and is a whiz at computers, but refuses to learn how to read or spell. Dr. Grandin's response was to get him a subscription to Wired Magazine or a scientific journal.
"Isn't that a too advanced for a third grader?" the mother asked. "No," Dr. Grandin replied. "He's probably gifted and I guarantee if you give him Wired or a magazine about something he's interested in, he will figure out how to read very quickly."
5. Put them to work.
Dr. Grandin had her first job at 13 and said all kids - especially kids with autism - should learn how to work and handle money. Even chores for an allowance will help them develop the skills they need to achieve independence. Self-employment is a good option for people with autism who may struggle with the social skills required for employment, so it's in their best interest to learn how to work and the basics of business early. In fact, she said every special ed class should teach business.
Dr. Grandin stressed that the reason she's famous for revolutionizing the way cattle are handled is because she was taught how to compile a portfolio of her work. Her portfolio got her in the door, not education or a job interview.
She also said (several times) that trades are a great place for people with autism to use their talents to earn a living. Most jobs that require a college degree will soon be eliminated due to automation and artificial intelligence, she said, but trades like plumbing, HVAC and construction still require human problem solving and labor. Many people with autism have advanced spacial reasoning and other skills that make them naturals at trades.
Tosh always throws his trash away, takes his plate to the sink, picks up his toys, helps carry groceries into the house and helps match his socks, but I've never formalized his "chores" or given him an allowance. At seven years old, I agree with Dr. Grandin. It's time.
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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