How Autism Teaches Us to Do Good in the Middle of the Storm
My first of 12 children came out yelling. Later diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) of the high functioning type—Garret’s always been loudly, fully, and unpredictably fabulous. Parenting him meant Garry and I had to learn a whole new way to communicate and listen. Through trial and much error, his presence pushed us to discover ways both to find meaning in his unspoken words and take cover from the verbal attacks and unjust accusations of his rigidly running mind. Inspired by the magnitude of his challenges and my desperate depth of love for him, I went back to school for counseling.
Through crisis and heartbreak, people are saying what they think—loudly, fully, and unpredictably.
Fast forward 18 years, Garret has garnered self-awareness and is acing his college classes. He is still loud, and the symptoms of autism often prevail: “rigid thinking patterns… preferences for sameness… fixated interests” (DSM5). However, these behaviors look different than they used to: Rather than throwing rampages about a change of plans or the discomfort of his clothing tags, he now hyper-focuses on topics with alarming honesty, emphatic opinions, and non-political correctness. Whether you like it or not—he’s telling you what he thinks and isn’t changing his mind.
Sounds a little bit like our world right now. Through crisis and heartbreak, people are saying what they think—loudly, fully, and unpredictably. They are sharing their side honestly, emphatically, and without restraint.
There is profound beauty and love in it, as there is in my son. Yet also, there is risk: Risk of judgment. Probability of being misunderstood. Chance of loss.
They are perils that the person with ASD (and his or her parents) know well.
The true challenge of autism is to empower those with it to listen to others through the desperation of their intense experiences and deafening thoughts in their own mind. Garret–and all of us in our big family–have the freedom to say what we think and the mandate to listen to others and consider opposing views. It takes much time and effort, with frequent failures and do-overs. At the end of the day, here’s a few of the social directions that have helped us along the way.
Below are some behavioral signs that we use in ASD therapy, which might help us all improve our ability to communicate effectively in today’s world:
It dawned on me this week–as I listened to all that is going on in our country–that we can learn a few lessons from our kiddos with autism. They keep it simple, relying on signposts to guide their social interactions and keep themselves open, observant, and OK. The behavioral directives don’t take away pain or lessen their challenges, but they do enable the autistic person to connect meaningfully with others. And in today’s world, that’s something.
Drs. Garry and Jodi Vermaas