Every moment, millions of bits of information are being processed by your brain, the vast majority of which is being handled and sorted without your awareness. This information is primarily derived from the physical senses, but also includes emotional responses to the physical experiences as well. We call this sensory processing, and the point to such a mechanism is to filter out the information that is not necessary for functioning “normally” on a day-to-day basis. What’s interesting is that how you “function” is dependent upon how much information you can process, and how much information you can process is dependent upon a whole slew of factors, none of which are relevant for this particular article. The point is that regardless of the why (for now), children with autism are able to process more information in a quicker time than the average human can even begin to comprehend. This is a large reason why they either act out or shut down so frequently: they literally cannot handle the insane amount of sensory information that is bombarding them, both from the external world and from their internal emotions.
The initial clinical understanding of an autistic child is that something “malfunctioned,” as if being autistic is something that needs to be “fixed.” This is like saying that all people are born the same and that anyone different from “normal people” need to be altered to fit the demands and expectations of mainstream society. To use a technical comparison, this is like saying that all computers need to use a dial-up modem and that any computer capable of transferring information at a faster rate must not be able to do so.
It is no coincidence that I used a technical analogy for describing an autistic child versus a “normal” child. The biggest difference between the two is that a “normal” child (or parent) is born with a dial-up modem and an autistic child is born with up to, let’s say, ten times the computing power. The most important point I can make is that neither one is “better” than the other. Each one has their perks and drawbacks. This article is the first of five articles meant to address some steps parents can take to help alleviate the sometimes debilitating drawbacks of autism.
The first step we can take is to…
#1: Stop Treating Autism as a Disorder
Nobody seeks a diagnosis of any kind unless they think there is something wrong. Parents initially take their children to be analyzed by a professional because they believe their child has some kind of disorder, a decision based upon a judgment of their individual child when compared against societal norms. When a child is judged to have a “disorder,” – either by their parent or doctor – a judgment that is based entirely upon preconceived notions of how a “normal” child is supposed to act, the parents begin searching for ways to fix their child’s perceived malfunction. Such actions and intentions begin to convey a message to the child that what they have – or what they are – is wrong.
A child comes into this world essentially as an emotional sponge: they absorb everything in their environment to understand just what kind of world they have come into. This is the foundation of the formation of their individual identity. To support that identity, they begin to observe and internalize every little movement a parent makes, every single word a parent speaks, and every facial expression that crosses their brow. The thing most damaging to the identity of the child is the emotional consequences as a result of a parent that is not unconditionally accepting of their own offspring. As a result, many children begin to identify with the false reality that their parents dislike them or do not accept them, creating a deep-seated belief that they shouldn’t even accept themselves. This type of belief structure causes a psychological rift which contributes to the child emotionally shutting down or physically acting out, two extreme – yet completely natural – consequences of internal frustrations.
The best way to approach a child with autism is to approach them with a mind free of judgments and expectations; that is, to simply be with the child in a state of objective involvement. This means that what the child does or says is not met with criticism or fear on the part of the parent. That criticism or fear of the parent is usually a result of the fear that they might be judged as bad parents. Most parents are so concerned about whether or not they are being good parents that they fail to ever actually parent! While parent is a noun, it is also a verb: to parent. “Parent” comes from the Latin parere which means “to bring forth.” In this way, the job of the parent has less to do with obtaining societal acceptance and more about “bringing forth” their child’s true potential, a potential that cannot be actualized when the child is viewed to have a disorder. What’s interesting is that the real issue revolves around the mindset of the parent and has very little to do with fixing the special child that has been labeled “autistic.” Furthermore, the phrase “I have an autistic child” is a very limiting belief, for the word “autistic” implies a fault, disorder, or disability. If we are to stop treating autism like a disorder, we must dissolve the preconceived notions about autism and allow the child the opportunity to flourish as brightly as possible.
Jacob Barnett was a child diagnosed with moderate to severe autism at the age of fourteen months. His mother, Kristine, was told that he would probably never learn to tie his own shoes. As a result, Kristine did what she believed was best for her son – she sent him to Special Education and tried teaching him what he was supposed to be learning- but she knew deep down that it was making her son miserable. One day she decided to give up on the labels and simply “[let] Jacob be himself — by helping him study the world with wide-eyed wonder instead of focusing on a list of things he couldn’t do.” Her secret: “All I’ve done is follow him with wonder into the stuff that he loves…but it’s very hard for many people to take a leap of faith and put everything you have into [some interest] that doesn’t look like it will turn into a job on Wall Street. As a parent, you have to let go of your dreams for them, because they are yours.” As a result of this non-traditional attitude, sixteen-year-old Jacob is now working on his master’s degree in quantum physics and is on track to win a Nobel Prize.
While not every child will be a physics genius, the way to unlock their fullest potential is to nurture that potential. The only way to achieve a better result is to do something different, like Kristine chose to do. But more important than the achievements of Jacob is the peaceful dynamic Kristine and Jacob display around one another. It is obvious their relationship has evolved from one of butting heads and creating tension to a relationship of compromise and understanding for the both of them.
In the next article, we will discover additional ways of practicing non-judgment as a means to unlocking the child’s potential. If you have any experiences you would like to share regarding how changing your mindset about autism has affected the life of you and your child, we would love to hear about it in the comments below. Until then, keep learning and growing and reminding yourself that it’s about practice, not perfection!