Some memories can be powerful enough to inspire us to try to make the world a better place. In my case, I have plenty of those to recall, but there is one I find particularly memorable. I remember conversing with a mother struggling to understand her son's development. She shared that he was four years old and, by that age, had yet to say a single word. On top of this, she mentioned he often had behaviors she cataloged as "strange." Among these behaviors were repetitive and "illogical," in her opinion, patterns such as turning off the lights in the living room, playing the same sounds of his toys repeatedly, and using toys in unconventional ways.
While sharing stories about her child, the mother commented on her concerns about his future. She was frustrated because she did not know how to teach him to be "like the other kids." She was especially upset about this because her son was having social complications in the daycare since the other kids could not get along with him, and the caretakers often neglected him. She attributed the poor treatment that her son was receiving at school to the fact that the other kids and adults were unable to understand him. However, she felt she was no better than them since she struggled to make sense of her child's behaviors.
That conversation is forever engraved in my mind because, while listening to her, I saw myself in her. I also felt lost, frustrated, and upset on several occasions because I want my children to achieve many things. At times I did not know how to help them reach those goals. Today, I keep discovering new ways to push my kids forward and help them bloom into the best versions of themselves. We all could have been the kid who constantly turns off the lights in the living room, and we never know when we will meet one. In this regard, we never truly know how one of these marvelous children might change our lives or how we can change theirs. That is why I invite you to join me on this journey and learn how to turn the helm that will help them navigate through this often challenging, albeit fantastic, experience we call life.
If you have ever felt like this mother, who struggles to teach her son to "be like other children," I have good news for you. "Once a child is diagnosed with ASD, the WHO says that a broad range of early interventions can reduce symptoms that interfere with daily functioning and quality of life." (Swamy, 2022). In this regard, it is essential to remember that we are all different from each other. We all have our habits and preferences regarding how we want to live our lives. Therefore, the healthiest way to help your child navigate the different stages of life might be to focus on finding ways to enable them to reach the best version of themselves instead of getting them to be like other children.
Doing this may sound more accessible than it is. After all, every person is a unique universe that may differ significantly from the rest of us. To help someone reach the "best version of themselves," we must first discover what that version is. However, this path should be carefully walked because, without even realizing it, we may find ourselves imposing a particular way of functioning on the other person. We should always give them the freedom to choose whom they want to be and to what extent they will consider our efforts and guidance.
Language is an essential skill for us to be able to give shape to our thoughts. Since we acquire it, we typically hold internal dialogues with ourselves that allow us to process what happens in our lives by analyzing events and drawing conclusions from them. Nevertheless, even for the most skilled communicator, figuring out what we want for our lives is challenging. So, how can we understand who someone wants to be when they have not acquired spoken language? How can we help them develop the language they lack when they do not seem to benefit from traditional methods?
Facing this challenge can be more straightforward or complex, depending on our approach to communication. When most people hear the word "language," they may understand it as expressing themselves through speech in a specific "code," usually known as a tongue. Likewise, they tend to imagine someone using their voice to pronounce words in English, Spanish, French, or any language they have acquired knowledge of. However, language can be much more than this if we know how to "listen." If we keep our eyes, ears, and, most importantly, our minds open, we can see that every action a living being performs can be a form of communication. Butterflies flap their wings when they intend to fly; plants extend their roots to find nutrients in the soil; dogs yawn when bored or hungry, and the more you think about it, the more examples you will likely encounter. Following this principle, it is essential to be able to interpret the possible meanings behind a person's actions, primarily when they do not communicate in the same language.
Think of a time you had the opportunity to interact with someone from another area of the world who did not speak your language. The more you try to communicate with someone under these circumstances, the closer you both feel the need to use signs or gestures to be better understood. Gestures and movements are globally more homogeneous in terms of meaning than words, which tend to change significantly for each language. Therefore, we should focus on these resources as a "last resort" for communication.
Since gestures and movements are familiar to everyone in that most of us can perform the same actions, it would be wise for us to learn how to use them to our advantage when navigating life with an autistic child. The fact that we can all perform or learn to perform the same movements does not guarantee that we will use them with the same intentions. Thus, it is not only wise but also essential to understand the personal meaning your child assigns to everything they do. They will most likely react to various stimuli if they cannot speak. How they respond can tell us everything we need to know about their feelings in certain situations.
Acts alone can communicate a lot, but if we want to accurately interpret what our child would like to say through each of them, we must be able to piece together how they react to everything that happens in their lives. They may always make the same gesture when they hear a particular noise or get in a certain mood when hungry. In other words, while we teach them to use the global conventions of codes we call "tongues," we need to be able to communicate with them in their language. We should teach them to interact with the world in their language and terms. This is because our senses capture stimuli from the world, and we become conscious of them. The way we process information is defined by the personal rules of thought and behavior that govern our lives. For example, red may have a special meaning to some people because it reminds them of a particular item they used to have. In contrast, others may see it as a color and nothing else. Therefore, it is more than necessary to pay attention to the unique and personal meaning some stimuli or actions have in the minds of our children and the way these situations make them feel.
A common saying is that it is better to think about things with a "cool head." It used to state that it would be wisest to leave emotion out of our thought processes, such as making decisions. How our brains and bodies are organized shows emotion is a fundamental part of our lives. Everything we experience triggers a feeling in us, regardless of our level of consciousness about it. Even if we believe we are "just thinking" about something, we always have motivational factors that lead us to think about it. Even at the very base of our behaviors, we can find two "states" we typically adopt in the face of an experience: we are either comfortable with or uncomfortable with what is happening to us. That is precisely why we sometimes catalog emotions as "positive" or "negative," referring to the ones in which we feel more comfortable or less comfortable. Emotions are essential because we want to understand our children's communication style. We have to realize that emotions are the signs that will lead the way on this journey. Both our emotions and those of our children should remain under our scope as closely as possible. More than once, we will feel frustrated, exhausted, sad, and any other emotion that makes us feel uncomfortable. When these emotions add up or invade our heads at intense levels, we can quickly lose focus on what is essential or, even worse, our behavior. It is an excellent motivator to remind myself that our children are the most affected in these scenarios, who are just learning everything about the world. In this process, they are even learning how to control themselves, and if we do things right, we may be lucky enough for them to learn from us.
For instance, it is expected for them to handle their emotions in messy and socially unacceptable ways at first. In these situations, it is essential to reconnect with our past. Remember, there was a time when we were also learning about the world and ourselves. We also needed a lot of help and patience from our parents. If we are successful, we can understand them and, with that achievement, guide them better in the journey to triumph and adapt to this world.
The journey may seem long and uncertain, and we may often wonder when the time will come for our children to accomplish everything we want to see them do. When will things get better? That is a question we would love to have the answer to from the start. To keep this uncertainty at bay, we should remember that we have known our children since the very beginning of their lives. We will notice when things change for the better or not; if we see them happy and healthy, we will know we are on the right track. It is always a good bet to trust ourselves and our children. They will tell us, albeit not always explicitly, if things are "getting better" or not. We have to know how to listen and adapt.
I have had the privilege of raising three beautiful and skilled kids. Each one of them is a world of their own that allows me to learn something new every day. Even though two of them are autistic, they are just as different from each other as they are similar. In this regard, "autistic" is not just a label that tells us everything we need to know about a person. It does provide a helpful framework that we can use to understand how to work with our children as a team.
The team I have established with my children has allowed me to learn immensely. I have learned more from them than they have from me. Furthermore, such learning wouldn’t have been possible without the many people in my life guiding me and supporting our team. In the same way, I want to be there for you and share with you what my extraordinary children have taught me along the way.