The minute she walked out, my throat got tight and I started to cry a silent, tear down your cheek kind of cry. My throat tightens as I type these words and remember the feeling all over again. I didn't hear a sound in the crowded room except for the beating of my heart and my exhales. I felt every single emotion from diagnosis until now, rising up like a bubbling volcano. The feelings were bigger than understanding or hope or even fear. It was a feeling of awe and God and white twinkle lights and purpose.
On this day, I felt my life in its enormity, and it was complete and on purpose.
Last month I had the opportunity to watch Temple Grandin share her message about the autism and "differently-abled brains" with a packed house of people starving for her important perspective.
For those who are not familiar with this legendary woman, she is one of the most well known adults with autism. She has been selected by Time magazine as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World”. Dr. Grandin presently works as a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and speaks around the world on both autism and cattle handling. For those of you that have not had the opportunity to hear her speak, I highly recommend you see her live, so you can feel her presence and see her beauty. You can find upcoming tour dates HERE. But in case those stars never line up for you, I want to share some of her wisdom with you here. She said so many things that were mind blowing, and I really couldn't write fast enough. Here are some of my favorite take away messages that I want to share with you.
Focus on Their Strengths
"Parents get so worried about the deficits that they don't build up the strengths, but those skills could turn into a job," says Grandin, who addresses scientific advances in understanding autism in her book, "The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum." "These kids often have uneven skills. We need to be a lot more flexible about things. Don't hold these math geniuses back. You're going to have to give them special ed in reading because that tends to be the pattern, but let them go ahead in math."
It took me patience and time to realize the strengths my boys possess. At first I was looking for Rainman savant like qualities. Will they be able to draw the New York skyline? Will they be able to take apart and rebuild a car? To answer that, no and no. But they each have their own amazing gifts. My youngest, Parker is hyperlexic- he has a precocious ability to read. He is able to process sensory information. He likes to be around people. His imagination and ability to entertain himself through play is remarkable.
And my Greyson is extremely resourceful when attempting to put something together, or solve a problem. He's great at sorting categories, understanding receptive language, and discriminating the world through pictures.
So like Grandin suggests, we focus on where they excel, and build on that.
Expose Them to the World
Get your children out of the house and provide choices of stretching activities, says Grandin, and shares that the worst thing you can do with a young autistic child is nothing. "Children in my generation when they were teenagers they had jobs and learned how to work. I cleaned horse stalls," she said. "When I was 8 years old, my mother made me be a party hostess - shake hands, take coats. In the 1950s, social skills were taught in a much more rigid way so kids who were mildly autistic were forced to learn them. It hurts the autistic much more than it does the normal kids to not have these skills formally taught." Grandin's mother exposed her to a vast array of life experiences. How will a child know they love machines or horses or art unless they are exposed to it? She urges parents to limit technology to an hour a day, and instead get out of the house and experience the world.
And it's HARD, trust me, I know it's so hard to rip ourselves and our children from our zone of comfort. To weather that birthday party, trip to the park, or start of a new hobby- but it's IMPORTANT. We can show them by example that we can be scared- but do it anyway. Don't let other people's stares keep you inside the house. If you are scared your child will elope- enlist the help of friends or family and get out of the house.
Don't Get Hung Up on a Label
"One of the problems today is for a kid to get any special services in school, they have to have a label. The problem with autism is you've got a spectrum that goes from Einstein down to someone with no language," said Grandin, who has a form of high-functioning autism known as Asperger's syndrome. "Steve Jobs was probably mildly on the autistic spectrum. Basically, you've probably known people who were geeky and socially awkward but very smart. When does geeks and nerds become autism? That's a gray area. Half the people in Silicon Valley probably have autism." One thing I didn't know about Grandin, she is HILARIOUS. She had the room rolling in laughter numerous times.
The label only means something bad if you define it that way. Who cares what anyone else thinks?
Some other practical advice from Grandin: slow down, give autistic people time to respond, any task that requires a sequence needs a schedule or a check list. She said that one NUMEROUS times throughout the presentation, Don't load working memory- we have none. You've got to write it down! Play lots of games that involve turn taking. Children’s board games, such as Candyland, are good for teaching turn taking. When a child gets older, use board games that are suitable for an older child.
Temple Grandin gives parents like me hope. Hope that it all is possible. She reminds me that it's important to enjoy this one sweet life we've been given.
(scenes from the Fresno Fair last weekend)
I walked away from the evening remembering, even if something we hope for doesn't happen- we will still be OK. I left filled with hope that the incredibly hard work we all put in means something and pays dividends for years. And Grandin provided a feeling of peace, truly for just a moment reminding me that we ALL are wonderfully and purposefully made.
A special THANK YOU to California Autism Center and Learning Group for making this event possible! And whether or not you have a child with autism, there is something for everyone in Temple Grandin's many books.