At a recent lecture by Dr. Temple Grandin in my hometown of Frederick, Maryland, a father of a local high school student with autism shared, “People with autism have the same desires as anyone else, and those can be squashed if the doors aren’t open to them.” True enough, but Grandin finds that this is not enough sometimes. Parents, caregivers, educators, therapists and others need to push, stretch, and nudge autistic children and adults through these doors in order for them to take advantage of opportunities that are increasingly opening up.
In her book, The Loving Push, which she co-authored with psychologist Dr. Debra Moore, Dr. Grandin addresses the fact that youth on the spectrum are apt to be overprotected. As a parent, I can certainly relate to this. Growing up, I knew what my son Jimmy would encounter when he played with the kids in the neighborhood and went to school. I knew some would befriend him, some would ignore him, and some would take advantage of him. I knew he would be in situations where he would be tormented, teased, ostracized, and probably bullied. Once he got out on his own, I knew that sticks and stones could break his bones, but names might be just as lethal.
Grandin and Moore say the purpose of their book is to “help parents let go and give careful, loving pushes to get their child to try new things.” Really, when you think about it, that’s what we try to do that with all children. In The Loving Push, Dr. Grandin describes how her own mother, Eustacia Cutler , stretched her beyond her comfort zone. We pushed Jimmy as well. Compared to our neurotypical daughters, Jimmy’s pushes tended to be more deliberate and calculated. For his own safety, he needed more intense supervision for a longer period of time. He still does, and that is one reason why we or his sisters visit him at his group home every weekend.
Jimmy absolutely loves his routines. For Jimmy, these routines are usually safe, functional and comforting. Trying something new means changing his routines, which is extremely difficult for him and the rest of our family. As a child, we introduced him to new things in small, incremental stages. As an adult, we’re doing the same thing but it’s less often. At the same time, we respect his discomfort with newness.
In her lecture, Dr. Grandin gave a loving push to the entire audience. She spoke of empowering individuals with autism, saying she saw too many autistic kids “become their label;” a point that needs to be shared and taken to heart. In other words, don’t let the label define one’s future. Labels don’t define us, our potential, or are dreams. That’s true of Jimmy and that’s true of the rest of us.
Please note: I am currently writing a book about my entire family and how we have grown over the years, in large part because of Jimmy. My son Jimmy is a middle-aged adult on the autism spectrum. The voices and perspectives of my son, my two daughters and wife as well as friends and professionals are included throughout. It’s a real, uplifting, and remarkable story; one which I have wanted to share for a long time. The book will be published in the not too distant future.
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