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How Understanding My Autistic Son's Perspective Changed My Own

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How much do we ever really know a person? I would like to think I know my autistic son pretty well. He’s my favorite person, we spend every day together, he imitates my mannerisms and facial expressions. I love him for exactly who he is. How much do I really understand him, though?

Autism is fascinating to me. He sees the world in a way that boggles my mind. He notices tiny details I overlook. He relates information to me in a completely unique way. For example, when requesting his favorite song, he doesn’t call it by its name, but rather by its duration. “Mama, I need 5:03.” His crayons are “64 red” because the box has a label with the number of crayons (64) in a red circle. That one took me a long time to get. He remembers the duration and episode number of every Mickey Mouse cartoon he watches.

Before him, I would never have noticed these things. Now I’m constantly deciphering how he processes information into my understanding. From my perspective, I am always surprised at how he sees things. Autism has a reputation for rigidity, and I’m starting to realize how rigid I am in my thinking. We each perceive information in a way that is natural to us — differently, but one way is not better than the other.

The trouble isn’t how we each see things, it’s trying to look outside of our perspective to better understand each other. And sometimes it’s hard. I’ve had to work much harder to communicate with him than I do with anyone else, and it can lead to frustration on both ends. On the flip side, I’m grateful to him for widening my perspective every day. There are so many things I’ve missed, details gone unnoticed, and the more he matures, the more I appreciate how much he has to offer. So often when dealing with a person who is different from us, we tend to dismiss them if they don’t meet our expectations.

My son was pretty much nonverbal for the first few years of his life, and I assumed he wasn’t processing language. When he did start to talk, I was amazed by how much he had retained, and also surprised to learn he could read everything (hyperlexia is sometimes a splinter skill). I had made an assumption, and I was wrong. Because he wasn’t speaking, I just thought, “Well, he doesn’t understand me when I speak.” Life lesson learned — presume competence, and I have tried to be a more open-minded parent and person because of it.

We get so wrapped up in our own ways of thinking that when we are challenged to think differently, it’s often hard and uncomfortable. I don’t want to go through life misunderstanding my son because I can’t think outside of my preferences. As he matures, I’m going to have to work even harder as his ideas become more complex. Of course it’s worth it. And instead of focusing on how hard it is, I’m really grateful for the opportunity to expand my own mind. How he challenges me will only make me a better and more understanding person.

Originally published: April 15, 2020
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