As the parents of an autistic teen, recognizing individual genius has never been more at the forefront of our mind. In 6 months my daughter will be 17 years old. Before we know it, she will be a full-fledged adult. My wife and I expect to be her primary care givers (or at least decision-makers) for the rest of our lives, but we are recognizing the need to be more focused upon helping my daughter establish her own identity. We want to help her achieve as much independence as she can handle, become a contributing member of society and live her life in a way that she finds fulfilling.
There are plenty of resources available for parenting, but kids don’t come with handbooks. Every parent is faced with the dilemma of deciding when to use sugar and when to use spice, but with autism we need to keep our cupboard stocked with a medley of spices no one has ever heard of. We can’t always ignore the little things that they need to “work on”. They have to be reminded about their chores, their homework, their behavior. At times, we find ourselves pestering them about how their actions affect the people around them. Many times, we cannot find the words to explain this in a way that she can understand, to where she might find it important. It doesn’t help that the people around us simply don’t understand. We can’t help but to worry about how these things are going to affect her when she gets into out in to the world, how people will perceive her or potentially reject her, even harm her. It is our responsibility to protect our child and teach them right from wrong, am I right?
Here’s the problem: I believe every person on this planet is born with their unique style of genius and their pre-destiny, God’s plan, to carve out their little piece of the world and make their mark to the benefit us all. We all begin with the potential to excel in our own individual way and we thrive when our strengths are encouraged and appreciated. Yet, it’s not our world, we just need to learn how to live in it, a world with other people, and make the best of it we can while we are here. Along the way, we learn how to adapt ourselves to our environment and to the will of the people around us. We make adjustments to our true self as we learn and sometimes it comes at a sacrifice as we balance between following our ideal path and conforming to the needs of our surroundings.
This means that we need to do whatever we can to recognize the things that people excel at and encourage them to focus on the things they find rewarding. As parents this is not easy for us, nor is it our daughter. Boy, is it difficult to let go of some or our own expectations, desires and hopes. The idea of it can be unsettling. Even for people of faith, it is often difficult to identify which of our ideals stem from our own selfish desires or senseless anxiety and which are truly in her best interest. It is sometimes hard to decipher which of our worries, expectations and directions coincide with her best interest and which ones contradict. When we let go of what WE want, it can feel as though we are giving up. Yet, I know that if we are not at least conscious of this, we may end up getting in the way of allowing my daughter to shine.
Parenting in general, according to public opinion, appears to be more commonly perceived as an act of discipline and correction or teaching “right from wrong” than it is helping a child discover and follow their passion in life. With autism, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) or Intensive Behavioral Intervention (IBI) is usually the first thing a child goes through after they are diagnosed. As affective as it may be, it sets into motion a cycle of constant correction at a very young age and continues all the way through adulthood. They get their praise when they do the “right” things, but they are constantly being reminded about what they “should” and “should not” do. How does any person thrive in a of setting of constant criticism? When does a person become over-reliant upon other people telling them what is “good” or “bad” when all seem to learn more effectively from our own mistakes and successes? How does a person in this situation reveal their true genius and what makes them exceptional? When, as parents, can we put aside our supervisor role for a moment and get to be cheerleaders and fans?
Inspiration and encouragement is a powerful thing. Personally, I am many times more driven when I am encouraged rather than criticized and I don’t think I am alone. Some people deal with criticism better than others, but the strength of kind, rewarding words or actions seems to be universally more powerful, yet commonly remiss. I think this is true with many parents and kids in today’s world, but with autism, it is extremely difficult to resist the temptation to be in constant correction mode. The scales between teaching “right and wrong” and seeking a child’s passion and purpose seem a bit skewed. There is no exact science, you can’t take away the correction and discipline, but something must be done to correct the balance.
I recently heard my daughter verbally list what I am guessing is the name of every person she has ever met. She did it in the car in about 15 minutes, in rapid succession. It was about 3 names per second without hesitation. No duplication, no “um” or “uh”, just names. The math (3 names x 15 minutes x 60 seconds/minute = 2700) blew me away. She mentioned people that we have not seen, talked to or talked about in 15 years. That sense of instant recall is incredible. It was a reminder of the amazing abilities and diversity of the human mind. I have no idea how this amazing ability can be applied, I don’t even know if she would do it again upon request, but I am certainly motivated to find out.
In the meantime, at 44 years old, I am just now discovering things about myself; talents that I have always had but did nothing with. I just assumed that some of the things I can do, were things everybody can do. My daughter is a genius in her own right and so is your child. Wouldn’t it be a shame to let that genius go to waste?
Make a habit of seeking and revealing individual genius. It will change your life, I guarantee it.