Young students, boy and girl, going to school. They hold hands. They hold hands. Children behind shoulders have satchels. Warm day in an early autumn. Back to school.

Drop the Deficit Mentality: Autistic People Have Dreams Too

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Sometimes people see a person on the autism spectrum and they think about all of the limitations. Truly, though, our autistic children have sparks inside of them that have yet to be ignited. When I look for those sparks in my son, I can see the abilities that have yet to be explored. Instead of thinking about what my son can’t do, I should spend more time focusing on what he can do. As Temple Grandin says, “There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do instead of what they cannot do.” On our bad days, I admit there is quite a bit of difficulty on focusing on the sparks inside of him. What if I focused on more on his strengths, though? 

10 Strengths My Autistic Son Demonstrates

1. He shows great ability to empathize with others. When I’m sad, he hugs me. When someone is hurt, he runs away because he cannot handle their pain. People assume autistic people have no empathy, but that’s not true. In fact, he shows a great deal of empathy.

2. His memory is fantastic. He can tell us what type of car passed by us with 100-percent accuracy every single time. He has memorized the symbols. Additionally, he knows what the body of each type of car looks like. Imagine the potential there.

3. In his mind, he can compute numbers using rules he learned long ago. He often challenges himself (and us) to figure out how to add multiple numbers together without actually writing them down.

4. A great capacity to love exists within him. He loves everybody. In fact, he shows us this all the time by giving hugs and kisses. Yes, that’s right, my son shows love.

5. When he sees a way to help someone, he jumps in and does it. He loves helping people. If we say something like, “Oh no! The cat is hungry. Who will feed her?” he literally runs toward the cat food and feeds the cat before anyone else can take his job.

6. Imagination. Yes, he has an imagination. He can imagine and act out what the dog might say when he refuses to go outside. He can imagine, but he has a hard time putting it into words or writing it down. Listen to him speak, though, and you hear it.

7. His self-awareness is outstanding. I can see that he understands what he has a hard time with and what he does well. He knows if he sees storm clouds coming, he will need his headphones. If there is a crowd, he knows he will need to find a safe space to take a break. I only wish other people were more aware of how to help him during these times because sometimes he doesn’t have what he needs even if he knows he will have trouble. This is not a weakness on his part. He knows what he needs. What he really needs is more people who understand his needs.

8. He keeps his brother safe. Given his past experiences, he can recognize signs of danger and will fiercely protect his brother.

9. Some say that flattery will get you nowhere, but my son knows how to schmooze for sure. Indeed, he tells just about every woman he meets how beautiful she is. He also tells men they are handsome. His newest thing is to say, “I’m going to tell on you,” and then he tells someone how someone has been nice to him or how someone has helped someone else out. He means every word of what he says, and genuine compliments mean more than the empty ones some people give.

10. This beautiful child of mine knows how to work a schedule, tell time, and, in fact, keeps us on schedule. If I listened to him more often, I would probably be late less often. My new strategy is to tell him what time we need to leave the house. He will always tell me when it is time to leave.

Why We Shouldn’t Ignore These Sparks of Intelligence

As Temple Grandin says, “You have got to keep autistic children engaged with the world. You cannot let them tune out.” How often do we tune out children? How often do we speak about them as if they aren’t there? How often do we fail to allow them to use their strengths to engage with the world? Dr. Lovaas says, “If they can’t learn the way we teach, we teach the way they learn.” All of this makes sense. Take a look at my son’s strengths. See the potential. He deserves to learn and be around other people and feel loved for who he is even if sometimes it becomes difficult for him. Where you see a spark, there is a fire. And when you see a fire, you look for tinder to keep the fire going. It’s time to stop extinguishing the sparks in our children and see their potential.

What sparks will you ignite in your child today?

Originally posted on EmbracingtheSpectrum.com.

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A 9-Year-Old on the Autism Spectrum Explains What It's Like to 'Think Outside the Box'

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Today I’m going to share with you what it is like, for me, to “think out of the box.” This is exactly the way I explained it to my mom, and she typed it out word-for-word for me last night while I explained it to her. I asked her to put it on my blog.

Me: “Mom, you know I always think out of the box, but sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad.”

Mom: “Kai, it’s never bad to think outside the box.”

Me: “I know, what I mean is that sometimes I thinks so far outside the box, that it’s like being on right on the edge, and you hold on and hold on until someone pulls you back up.

So pretend your box is a little house. Pretend you’re on the cliff of a mountain, on all sides it’s just square, square, square – and the mountain’s a billion thousand meters high. And you think out of your box.

So pretend the box is your house. You think out of it, like you go out of your box, and the distance from the side of your box to the edge of the mountain is half a ruler space. You walk out of your box, and you’re thinking too much out of the box – you’re walking too near to the edge of the cliff, and then when you think way out of the box, that means you walk so far – further than the half a ruler space, and suddenly you fall down, but luckily you quickly grab the edge of the mountain.

Somebody sees your fingers there (but you don’t know) – this person just climbed the mountain to meet mighty-mighty eagle (me). Luckily that person grabs mighty-mighty eagle’s hands – pretend mighty-mighty eagle has hands. Then you get right back into your small box, and that is like thinking out of the box.

So I’m not saying you must not think out of the box. You must, except you mustn’t think about whatever you’re thinking about outside the box too much because then you can fall off the cliff and nobody is there to help you. Unless of course you have wings.”

Mom: “So how often do you think outside the box?”

Me: “Twice a day at least!”

About Me: I’m Kai and I’m 9 years old. My mom typed this for me because she never allows me to type on her laptop! But this is my story word for word.

Image via Thinkstock.

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10 Words That Describe a Parent of a Child on the Autism Spectrum

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What does it take to be a parent of someone with autism? I’ve been pondering the question lately. (Now that my children are adults, I actually have time for reflection.) I am the parent of two, one with Asperger’s syndrome and the other who’s not on the autism spectrum. Did I raise my children differently? The short answer is: Not really. Both of them have my unconditional love and attention. But I do think that having a child with special needs made me dig deep into my soul’s reservoir and activate the personality traits necessary to help him flourish.

So what are those traits? What words just pop into your mind to describe a parent of a child on the autism spectrum? I asked my autism community on Facebook this question, and the post exploded with responses! Using the community’s input and my own personal opinion, here is my top 10 list:

1. Genuine

Lydia Wayman posted this word. She is a young woman on the autism spectrum, and she encounters parents at her speaking engagements and when she works at an autism resource center. She’s right. Every parent of a child on the autism spectrum I’ve been fortunate to meet in person or online is authentic and genuine. There is no pretense. What you see is what they are. None of us has time to put on airs.

2. Unstoppable

Does the Energizer Bunny come to mind? We don’t have the luxury of slowing down as
we must keep on going and going and going to make sure are kids are receiving the best care and support possible.

3. Over-Caffeinated

Many posted “tired,” “exhausted,” but Rebecca Marcincak’s “over-caffeinated” acknowledges our collective fatigue and the fact that we push through (using whatever means possible). There’s no time to catch up on our sleep because our kids need us. So, double shot of espresso or another strong cup of tea please and I’ll be on my way!

4. Humorous

Life is just so much better when you approach it with a sense of humor. I’ve seen a huge transformation in my son over the years. He used to take everything so seriously, but as he’s matured and gained self-confidence, he pokes fun at life (with a twinkle in his eye) and takes pride in being able to make others laugh.

I also think of Brent Anderson, an adult on the spectrum and popular speaker, who
enjoys sharing his literal mind and his “Unintentional Humor.”

5. Fearless

I’ll bet you never thought of yourself as fearless. I know I didn’t. But I believe we are. There is no manual for raising a child on the autism spectrum. And there isn’t a central information hub for finding resources — therapies, schools, independent living, and employment. It’s up to us to seek those resources out and, often, fight for them.

6. Ever-Vigilant

We never let down our guards. Our ears are tuned to conversations — are they making fun of my child? Our eyes are constantly scanning left and right — is everything OK? Even though he’s an adult and living independently, I’m always aware of what’s happening in my son’s life to make sure he is safe and secure.

7. Selfless

Our children first. Helping others in our autism community second. We’re committed and concerned about the needs of others first before ours.

8. Scared

We try not to worry or think about the future. We’ve all seen the statistics so, yes, we’re scared. But we’re not stopped by our fears, and we all try to take it one day at a time.

9. Brave

The word “warrior” came up several times. I like to imagine myself as the Asgardian warrior, Sif, battling my way through the world to clear a path for my son. Fantasy aside, it’s parents like Sharon Cummings who embody the warrior spirit. She’s just one mom who bravely stepped out her comfort zone to make a difference for her autistic son and the special needs community at large.

10. Awesome!

Just like their children…

So, what words would you include on our list?

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11 Tips for Students With Autism Who Are Entering College

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College can often be a difficult transition for those on the autism spectrum. When I was growing up on autism spectrum, getting into college was my first big dream. Now that I’ve graduated, I’m currently pursuing my doctoral degree.

I wanted to share 11 questions I frequently get asked by from students on the autism spectrum who are pursuing a post-secondary education.

1. As a college student affected by autism, what is one of the main things I need to know?

A big difference between college and high school is that in high school you generally have a structured plan for your accommodations called an individualized education program (IEP). However, in college that no longer exists, so you must advocate to your disability support group on campus to receive your own accommodations

2. What are some accommodations I can receive in my classes?

Individuals on the spectrum receive accommodations only if they register with their disability support group. They will then receive accommodations based on their needs. This can include extended time on tests, tape recorders for classes, individual note takers, etc.

3. Do I have to pay for accommodations?

Under The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, colleges are required to provide all learning disabled individuals with “reasonable accommodations.” However, you should check the guidelines in regards to what is and what is not available on your campus.

4. Will faculty or fellow students be informed that I am on the autism spectrum?

Faculty members are not allowed to disclose any information about a student to others without consent from the student. However, students must register as a “disabled student” to receive accommodations, meaning your disability support group would be aware you have a disability. It is then up to you to inform your instructors.

5. Is on-campus living for me?

Accommodations can also factor into your living arrangements on campus. For example, you may have an opportunity to have a single room if needed. Ask if your resident assistant will be made aware of your living situation, since he/she can be of help in an emergency.

6. Will tutoring be available for my courses?

Most colleges provide tutoring for all students, but it’s important to learn about those services early on to see if it is available and if you need additional support.

7. Are there any restrictions on how many courses I can take?

Some disability support groups require you take less courses in your first few semesters of college to make for an easier transition.

8. Is there a club on campus that raises awareness about autism and provides social opportunities for students affected by autism?

Autism Speaks’ college program, Autism Speaks U, works with students across the county to start chapters that raise awareness and funds. Some also establish mentoring programs for students and youth on the autism spectrum. To see if a chapter exists on your campus, visit www.AutismSpeaks.org/U.

9. Will my professors have any previous training in educating individuals affected by autism?

There is no requirement at most college for professors to have education in teaching
individuals with learning disabilities
. You should be prepared to advocate for yourself when a situation deems itself appropriate to do so.

10. Will I be treated differently by fellow students because I have autism?

Like in any other situation where you are around people, there is the possibility of a lack of awareness on their part in dealing with people with learning disabilities. Therefore, spreading awareness is crucial for you and others affected by autism.

11. Is there anything on campus that focuses on post-college plans for individuals affected by autism?

Many colleges have a career program/center that focuses on helping you network with outside companies. You can also look under the Americans with Disabilities Act for information about job accommodations and workshops.

I wish all the incoming students with autism a wonderful college experience! Have fun, study hard and remember each day what you are working to achieve. That’s the key more than anything else to succeed and thrive in college.

In 2015, I contributed a chapter to a book called “College for Students with Disabilities: We Do Belong” that shares the experience of several individuals with disabilities who have successfully navigated a post-secondary education and graduated. You can learn more about the book here.

This post first appeared on KerryMagro.com.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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Why I Really Struggle With School as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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As someone on the autism spectrum, school has always been difficult for me. But it’s not due to the fact that I have trouble learning new things. I’m a really fast learner, and I even got an A in my first college class! So when I was talking with some of my friends about my anxiety over going back to school this fall, I can completely understand why they may have thought I was worrying over nothing.

“Don’t be afraid of trying things. You can do it!” they told me.

Yes, I may have the ability to try things. Yet, that’s not why I have been so anxious. And then (after getting some extra help from my dad) I figured out how to explain my issue.

Compare school to driving a car. Yes, I know how to drive, and the car is working. But I’m feeling anxious because I’m not sure if I’m getting closer to the destination or further away from it. I need to find the right road. In fact, sometimes, I don’t even know which direction the destination is in. And even if I pull over to ask for directions, I still feel lost and disoriented.

In other words, my writing may be great and my memory is incredible. The problem is that I need to understand things first. Sometimes, I just don’t know what the lesson was about or if I misunderstood what the teacher said completely. And even when I ask for the teacher to explain it, I still tend to get confused with the answer.

One of my traits of being on the autism spectrum is that I can have literal thinking. I can also have a hard time reading between the lines and applying what I’ve learned in one situation to a different situation. So when I read in a textbook “Nearly 80 percent of Colombia’s people live in this area,” and the teacher later asked, “Where do most of Colombia’s people live?”…I struggled to answer the question. The textbook hadn’t used the word “most.” Looking back, I know now that “80 percent” is another way of saying “most,” but at the time I wasn’t able to make that connection when I needed to.

I got lost.

How can people help? Please be patient with me. It may take more than one explanation before I’m confident I understand the lesson. I may need someone to point me in the right direction occasionally. And sometimes, I might already be going in the right direction but not even know it, so the confirmation helps.

I know I have the ability to do well. I just need to make sure I’m learning the right information.

Image via Thinkstock.

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When Someone Says Your Child With Autism Will 'Eat When He's Hungry'

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Oh vey, if it only were that easy.

Has anyone made a comment when you were trying to feed your child and said, “Oh, don’t worry so much. He will eat when he’s hungry?”

I can relate to this all too well.

Growing up, I was obsessed with bologna sandwiches. Nothing else would compare to the positive feeling I’d get whenever I’d be presented with another bologna sandwich. It wouldn’t matter if it was breakfast, lunch or dinner. That easily became one of my norms around the time I was diagnosed with autism at 4. This is a common characteristic for many on the spectrum.

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It was challenging for me, as it is for many children, to understand I wanted food when I felt hungry. Other children sometimes will want to eat but don’t know when they will be full. These challenges can make for a difficult time trying to get several meals in during one day. For me, trying something other than that precious bologna sandwich would make me lose my appetite completely.

And then there are the sensory issues! People have to remember that children with autism often have sensory issues, and eating involves all five senses (touch, sight, taste, smell and sound). We truly went through the gauntlet early on for a solution when there wasn’t a true blueprint in place for feeding me. My parents tried transitioning me to other foods by including smaller amounts of foods I like, such as bologna, when they did. While this didn’t always work, more options presented to me would help me find more foods I enjoyed later down the line. They also helped me set up times during the day to have each meal to help me with structure.

Although I can truly say my experience may vary compared to the next person with autism you meet, researchers have estimated that over half of all children with an autism spectrum disorder have some sort of challenge with food.

My advice for those parents out there today who have a challenge like this with a loved one is to read and download resources to help guide you through it. I recommend a toolkit called “Exploring Feeding Behavior in Autism: A Guide for Parents.” I’ve often used this toolkit when consulting with parents who have children with autism to understand the “nuts and bolts,” as they say, of feeding issues.

After that, like my parents did for me, find what your child loves to eat, try to set up a schedule each day to set that structure and understand that each one of these children will have different needs, so creating a new blueprint may be necessary.

Today, I love a variety of foods, and I hope one day your child can do the same.

Bon appetite!

A version of this blog originally appeared on Kerrymagro.com.

Image via Thinkstock.

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