Posts Tagged ‘feelings’

Autism Appreciation

This is a post I started in April, but then stuff happened and I didn’t finish it. So let’s just pretend this is Autism Appreciation Month. Actually, all months should be a time for appreciating autism.


Twice, recently, people have complimented me on how positive I am towards and about my profoundly autistic clients– you know, the “severe” ones who don’t talk and self-injure and have all sorts of “Behaviors.” People seem to think it’s special that I consider these kids awesome. They congratulate me when I talk about learning to communicate with them in their own nonverbal languages, when I see their good points rather than their so-called deficits.

I find this both baffling and somewhat sad. Why doesn’t everyone see these kids the way I do? I’m not being charitable towards them; I honestly enjoy their company, often more than I enjoy the company of neurotypical adults, and certainly more than I enjoy the company of most non-autistic children.

Really, what could be better than spending an afternoon with someone who enjoys my company but doesn’t expect conversation? Isn’t it more fun to be out and about with someone who notices the oddest little things that others overlook? What’s not to love about seeing someone jump and flap with excitement when they see something they like?

And if they sometimes lash out, or show me that they are in pain, how can I blame them? It’s hard to be a child even when the adults around you do speak your language– imagine how overwhelming it must be when they don’t! But I’ve found that showing sympathy and respect even when I don’t understand goes a long way towards bridging that gap and reducing those “behaviors” that bother others so much. Working to create a small, shared world between two very different people (such as those who speak another language or come from another country) is a magical experience to me, far more enjoyable than playing a team sport or engaging in a competition.


I am also amazed by how much people often manage to overlook the strengths that come with autism. Let me start this part by stressing that I am Not saying that autistic people are childlike. However, many of them keep certain skills that neurotypical people usually lose at a young age.

Autistic people have a certain intensity of focus, an ability to ignore the irrelevant and see beyond the obfuscating obvious. They are able to enjoy themselves with equal intensity, with an unselfconscious joy that everyone should envy. Sadly, many autistic people so end up self-conscious about their behavior, but only because other people have taught them to be. Even in those cases, adult autistics usually retain the ability to be playful and creative in ways that most non-autistic adults aren’t. We see nothing awkward or “too silly” about joining in a child’s activity. We don’t feel too dignified for a game of make-believe or for sitting on the floor or for loving a children’s story.

By the age of 3, non-autistic children start being judgmental about other people’s appearances and adherence to social norms, and by age 5, they are downright cruel to others who don’t meet their standards. Many of them never outgrow this behavior, and those who do often don’t outgrow it until they are adults. Before they learn to be polite, non-autistic children will come right out and tell me if they think I don’t look nice or that I am awkward. I’ve never had an autistic person, verbal or not, show this kind of pettiness towards me.

Non-autistic children are fiercely competitive, obsessed with the idea of being better than one another, which is another way of being judgmental. Autistic children are rarely so focused on creating these kinds of hierarchies, although non-autistic adults try very hard to teach them that winning is important by insisting that they play structured, competitive games, at which point they might get obsessed with winning, probably not because they care about besting others, but because autistic people tend to be perfectionists.


Obviously, everyone is different, and of course there are some autistic people who are very competitive, or exclusionary, or focused on meeting arbitrary social standards. But in my experience, they are relatively rare.

Autistic people are thoughtful. We enjoy our own company and can easily keep ourselves amused for hours on end. We are innately curious, and enjoy figuring things out, even if those things aren’t what others expect us to be learning.

Some people look at a child who has taken apart their toys and see destructiveness, misbehavior, and a nuisance. I look at the same child and see mechanical intelligence and insatiable curiosity. They look at a child who won’t stand in line doing what the other children do and they see disobedience or inattention or perhaps non-intelligence. I see a child who doesn’t care about conformity, who has other activities on their mind. A boy who crashes into things around the house may simply have trouble controlling his body or need more sensory input. A girl who seems cranky and picky may just have an unnoticed sensitivity to something that is easily avoided. A child who doesn’t speak may have a mind full of wonderful music or remarkable images or creative ideas, and just needs to learn a way to share those things with the rest of us.

Autistic people aren’t flawed versions of “normal” people. They have wonderful and fascinating characteristics of their own, and those things are so often overlooked because everyone focuses on the more obvious “deficits.”

Stop trying to help autistic people become more “normal.” Of course, help them learn to communicate and to do things for themselves so they can be independent. But that doesn’t mean they have to do things the same way you do. It doesn’t mean they have to play with their peers in order to have fun, or sit at a desk in order to learn, or care whether their socks match or their shirt is on frontwards. These things aren’t necessary in order to enjoy a good life.


Love the autistic people in your life the way they are. Appreciate them for being their own autistic selves.

In fact, try and learn to be a little more like them. Reduce small-talk and other unnecessary speech. Become more aware of the sounds and textures and odors around you, so that you discover new things to appreciate and notice when others are too loud or strong. Stop comparing yourself so much to others and judging people (including yourself!) on arbitrary social standards. Compete less; play more. Observe. Think. Question the obvious. Develop your own tastes rather than going with what’s popular. Stop worrying about whether you look dignified or silly and just enjoy an activity. Be in the moment. Do something impulsive. Watch how someone does something without interrupting or trying to teach them how to do it your way. Let your body express your emotions. Find something mesmerizing to focus on. Shout for joy. Run around with no specific goal. Imitate birdsong. Be different. Let something random catch your attention. Rethink your priorities. Accept that the world is larger and stranger and more complex than you ever realized.


People Are Complicated

October 22, 2016 Leave a comment

Human beings are capable of logical, rational thought. But we are not inherently logical rational beings. We are emotional. We are complicated. We are self-contradictory. We are inconsistent.

It’s easy to forget this. We expect other people to Make Sense, by which we mean that we want to be able to understand the reasons behind people’s feelings and actions. And to some extent, we often can. We have the ability to emphasize, to imagine how we would feel in a particular situation and hence understand how another person in that situation feels. But we can’t always know someone’s situation perfectly. We can’t always imagine that situation accurately. And, of course, we don’t all have identical responses to the same things. We don’t always make sense to each other. We don’t always make sense to ourselves.

So I am amazed at how often I fall into the mental trap of expecting children to make sense. Children are, in fact, less likely to make sense than adults. They are also less able to reflect on, understand, and express the reasons for their emotions and actions. But many adults get annoyed when children act in a way that the adult can’t understand. 

It always amazes me how many adults seem to have completely forgotten what it was like to be a child, to have irrational fears and inexpressible longings and heartbreak over ordinary occurrences. Even though, as adults, we still have these experiences, only perhaps less often and more privately. Why does it never occur to us that a child might be crying because of the song playing on the radio, laughing at something they just imagined or remembered, or angry just because it’s been a long day rather than because of any specific event?

As with so many things, this expectation of an immediate and obvious cause for someone’s feelings is magnified in dealing with disabled children. I was at the beach with a 9-year-old nonverbal client today. We were walking along at the water’s edge when he suddenly began to cry.

I asked him what was wrong, although I knew he had no way to tell me. I asked if he was injured, hungry, cold, if he needed to go back to his Dad, if I could do anything to help… (While he doesn’t indicate yes or no, he will stop crying if I manage to figure out what he needs, so I try to list a number of possible solutions for him.)

When he simply continued to sob, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why I was assuming a concrete and proximate reason. Maybe he was thinking about something that saddened or scared or worried him. His grandmother has been ill. He has a new baby brother. And there are a million things I don’t know that could be wrong. Maybe his parents had a fight. Maybe he has a mean teacher. Maybe his best friend isn’t in his class this year. Anything could be upsetting him.

And maybe it was something more immediate, but abstract. He spent a long time tossing a ball to himself today, and then we walked past a group of kids playing a ball game. Maybe he felt left out and wished that the other kids would play with him. Maybe he felt sad about being so different from the other kids. About not even knowing how to ask to join them. Perhaps he was just disappointed that he was walking with me instead of swimming with his Dad (they did go swimming, but not for as long as he wanted).

We found a bench and sat. His Dad came over and started running through the same questions I had– did he need a snack, a sweater…? He waved Dad away, turned his back. He told him not to cry, and, at my urging, went back to his swimming. 

“Don’t cry.” I hear that a lot, from many sources. It’s usually said in a sympathetic way, not a mean way. “It’s ok, buddy, dry those tears.” “Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be scared of.” “Aw… Cheer up, honey.” It’s a natural response, I think. We hate seeing someone in pain (there’s that empathy again). We want to fix it. We want to make it all better. And sometimes, we can. Sometimes sympathy and reassurance is enough. Love alone has dried many a child’s tears. But it can also hurt to be told that everything is ok when that just isn’t the case. So I’ve removed the phrase “don’t cry” from my vocabulary.

I put my arm around my client’s shoulder and sat with him and his tears. I spoke softly. 

I reminded him that he was loved.

I told him that everyone feels sad and cries sometimes. And that he would feel better eventually.

I told him I understand that life can be really hard, and that it was ok to feel upset about that.

I told him that I wished I knew how to help him feel better, but that sometimes it just takes time.

He reached over and gripped my hand. After a few more minutes, he stopped crying. He stood up and tugged me in the direction of the parking lot.

“Ok,” I said, “Let’s go get your Dad and tell him you’re ready to go home.” And we did. And also, I told him that he was a great kid and I love hanging out with him. I probably should have said it sooner. I’ll try to remember to say it more often.