Like many of you, we celebrated with a certain degree of pride when our son graduated from high school last week. Our graduate was different than most. For one thing, he is 6 feet, 7 inches tall and is 21 years old. He also has autism. You can learn a lot more about autism, and you should because one in every 110 children born in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum. What I would like to share with you is that I have not graduated. I have, however, learned a few things. Here are four of them.
Teach by encouragement. People with autism can find the world to be a frightening place. Like all of us, when their anxiety goes up, they tend to withdraw; retreat to a more comfortable place. So when it comes to working with them to go outside of their comfort zone, encouragement works much better than confrontation. I am pretty convinced that you can never win a power struggle with a person with autism. What you can do is lose the person.
I have particularly learned this while coaching basketball for the Special Olympics. Remembering that my task is to help each individual achieve their highest potential and not necessarily winning games has been helpful. On my team, everybody plays, everybody gets a chance, and everyone is encouraged to do his or her best, whatever that may be.
Never stop being a student. Once we began to understand that our primary task was not to fix him but to learn from him, everything changed. The goal ceased being fitting him into our world and became getting him to invite us into his. It has changed how I interact with all people, especially those who try my patience. Becoming aware that no one is losing sleep trying to figure out how to frustrate me was a big step. When I have to repeatedly answer the same question it is because he needs to keep the world predictably. I am learning every day, and what I learn today may not apply to tomorrow.
We all need an IEP. In the world of special education it means Individualized Education Plan. Tailoring our son's education to his own abilities opened up a lot of doors that we thought were closed. This he does well, that he does not, here we need to push, there we need to let go. At first, I thought it would be a good idea for all students to have an IEP. Then it occurred to me that we all need one. One size simply does not fit all.
It really does take a village. We have given up a lot of things by having a child with autism. We have never had a real vacation. My wife gave up her career to be a stay-at-home parent/advocate. Many kinds of treatments are not covered by insurance. But we do not regret any of it. We have been blessed by people who "get it." From the kind clerk at the grocery store who has been engaging him in conversation since he was a little kid, to a lot of gifted teachers who diligently look for what works (if you've met one kid with autism, you've met one kid with autism) to business owners that provide nurturing places of employment, to service providers who are enormously gifted but work in a field that doesn't pay well and most people wish was invisible, to an amazing pediatrician who is a kind and calming healer, to friends who understand that there are times when we are just plain out of gas. It really does take a village.
Finally, it occurs to me that this list might be good for all of us, not just those with special needs. So what kind of world do you want?
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.