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The One Question About my Son’s Autism That Left Me Speechless

When you have a kid with a disability (or two) you are used to being stared at and questioned. Especially when your kids have disabilities that aren’t readily visible physically. They have a meltdown in public and you get the, “why don’t you give that kid a good whooping?” looks from people in Walmart. My 9-year-old son has autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. He is verbal, has some sensory processing issues, emotional regulation issues and some repetitive movements.

I am a musician (among other things) and was recently at a gig where we were fed dinner between the dress rehearsal and the show (and got paid on top of it — my favorite kind of gig). At dinner with my fellow string people, those of us who were parents talked about our kids. Most of us knew each from other gigs, so I felt comfortable talking about my son.

Autism parents will tell you we’re used to questions. And many of us are happy to answer them in the name of education and hopes of changing attitudes about autism. We’re used to the usual ones: “How does he act?” “How can you discipline?” “What caused it?” “How do you fix it?” “Will he ever have a normal life?” “How does he go to school?” I firmly believe these questions are asked out of genuine curiosity and not malice to make us parents feel bad. I had a lot of the same questions 15 years ago when I started teaching violin to a boy with autism. I did research and we had a very successful student-teacher relationship for four years. I had no idea then that research would become the basis of my own parenting journey.

At this dinner, a few people asked me some of those questions. But then one gentleman, probably the youngest person at the table, not married, not a parent, asked me, “What are his strengths?”

I heard him, but was so flabbergasted by the question I just responded, “What?”

He replied, “What is he really good at?”

I recovered after a few seconds, and said, “He has an amazing memory for facts. He spends hours watching YouTube videos and reading books about facts. Whatever he’s obsessed with at the time, but usually revolving around video games or Legos. He’s also super-empathetic and doesn’t want anyone or anything to be hurt.”

The guy nodded, “That’s awesome.”

The conversation then continued on with another parent chiming in about their child and video games. I just sat there. I don’t think anyone before (outside of a therapist or a teacher) had asked about my child’s strengths.

And that led me to think, why do we only talk about or ask about the deficits of kids (or adults) with disabilities? Why don’t we focus on their strengths more? I’m in a masters program right now to become an occupational therapist, and a big part of being an OT is recognizing a client’s strengths and using those to make their quality of life better. Why can’t the rest of the world see their strengths as well? Let’s make it the norm to ask about someone’s strengths before we ask “What’s wrong with them?”

Follow this journey at Kim Fanning.

Getty image by Archv