(This post was originally published online at Mind Body Green)
Recently, I was rounding up my three boys for bedtime. The younger two had already gone up the stairs, but my oldest son Jack, 11, who has autism, was still in the family room. He was intensely involved with a set of different-colored plastic cubes from one of those marble run games.
He dropped a green one, positioning himself really close to the countertop as it struck. He chose a different green one and repeated the ritual a few times until he was seemingly satisfied. Then he moved on to dropping a blue piece.
In the past, I would have looked at this behavior as "very autistic” and proceeded to stop it. But I knew better now. I watched him with curiosity for a few more moments before I asked, “Jack, what do you hear?”
A blue piece struck the counter and he smiled: “It’s a C.”
“Cool,” I said. “What do you hear now?” and I dropped a green piece. “That’s a D,” he replied, and with that he grabbed his pieces and ran up the stairs to bed.
My son was hearing the musical notes in the plastic pieces of a toy. Had I chosen to approach the situation from a place of fear, and stopped his behavior without understanding it, I would never have had the experience of that interaction.
After years of both my own research into my son's condition and my experience as a physician working with families affected by autism, I completely shifted my approach. I realized that the need to make these kids behave “normally” was actually a detriment to forming a meaningful relationship with them.
Since I have let go of my need for Jack to behave in a certain way, I've freed up the space to interact with him and connect with him on a deeper level. And the great paradox: All of his communication and social skills are emerging beautifully as a result.
Most of us choose to believe things about autism because that’s what we’ve been taught to do. So we stay stuck in a very limited, tiny box of possibilities. But when we choose to question those limiting beliefs, we open up a world of possibilities for ourselves and our children.
Here are three of the biggest myths about autism that, once I gave them up, allowed Jack to enter my world. I wish more parents understood that they can discard them too.
Myth #1: Autism is a behavioral disorder.
Most people believe that autism is a mental health disorder characterized by aberrant behaviors. But that isn't true.
If you must label autism as a disorder, it's far more useful to consider it as a social-relational issue.
These children require guidance with social interactions, communication, and help in forming relationships. Their behaviors are how they try to make sense of an overwhelming world. By trying to eliminate or extinguish abnormal behaviors, we actually block the trust and safety they need to form meaningful relationships.
What To Do Instead:
Instead of correcting them, decide right now to be inquisitive and curious about your child’s behaviors. Watch your child rather than judging them — and see what you learn as a result.
For example, one day Jack and I were making shapes out of a 240-piece sphere puzzle. We had put the puzzle together several times already, so today we were making three-piece triangles, four-piece squares, and five-piece pentagons with the individual plastic pieces from the puzzle. I was having trouble making a triangle because I needed very specific shapes and I couldn’t find them.
I asked Jack to help. Without hesitation he said, “Get pieces 44 and 116." (The pieces were numbered on the back.)
So I looked through the pile of pieces, found 44 and 116, and, sure enough, they fit. Wow, I thought, his brain is quite brilliant. But without acceptance and curiosity, I might not have discovered this.
Myth #2: Children with autism have very little potential.
This is the belief that used to keep me up at night. I was stuck thinking in terms of Jack’s daily struggles and how he might never fit in. But the truth is today has nothing to do with tomorrow, next week, or next year.
What we believe is possible for our children is more important than where they are today. And when you begin to understand their experience of the world, and try to discover their strengths, entire new sets of possibilities open up for you and your child.
What To Do Instead:
Choose one new belief right now that affirms, rather than negates, the possibility of unlocking your child’s potential. For example:
- My child has strengths. I will focus on them.
- My child is brilliant at XYZ. How can I cultivate that?
- Today’s struggles do not define tomorrow’s outcomes.
For example, I recently decided to have Jack take piano lessons. I knew he had perfect pitch and loves music, and I felt he was ready to learn to play.
His instructor and I are blown away by his progress. Not only is he actively practicing and reading music, he is composing his own music! And he really loves it. The possibilities are numerous with this kind of talent discovered and cultivated.
Myth #3: Autism is a terrible tragedy.
Most people believe that autism is a lifelong, devastating condition with little hope for a meaningful life.
Yes, autism can be challenging, puzzling, and all-encompassing. But it's actually an invitation to redefine the way you think, act, and live as a parent. If you stay stuck in the tragedy mindset, you waste valuable time and opportunity to connect with your child.
Consider the vibe in a household where the parents feel devastated, hopeless, and angry that their child has autism. What are you modeling for the child in terms of a meaningful relationship?
Now consider the household where the parents have done their grieving and moved on to acceptance. They have even gone a step further and have chosen to understand their child’s world and take useful action to bring out all of the strengths, talents, and gifts that every child holds.
What To Do Instead:
Stop fighting and fearing autism and decide right now to focus on your child’s strengths. Be open to the possibility that your child has unlimited potential and value.
My own journey to acceptance was unnecessarily slow. I didn’t have the understanding I have now of the hidden brilliance of these children. For years, I focused on how my son was damaged by environmental toxins and the injustice of it all. It was time wasted, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
Jack is going to be 12 in a few months, and he is really happy. We are teaching him based on his strengths as a visual learner, and we let go of the need to be “normal." And wouldn’t you know it — he’s emerging as an interactive, funny, social boy.
To your child's strengths,
Andrea Libutti, MD