In the autism community, there is a saying, "If you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism." Children with autism are uniquely wired. They each have gifts to share and individualized ways of seeing the world. With the CDC reporting that 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD, chances are high that your child knows or is connected with someone who is uniquely wired.
As humans, we tend to gravitate toward people and situations that we know, understand and with whom we feel comfortable. When we encounter someone whose behaviors are unexpected or difficult to interpret, it can make us feel unsettled or anxious.
Our natural tendency may be to avoid that person or situation. But that default response doesn't help us grow as a person or expand our compassion, and it can lead to a person with differences being excluded and isolated. Many times, children on the autism spectrum will behave in ways that are unexpected or different.
So how can we help our kids become more compassionate and understanding of those children with autism who are uniquely wired? Here are five tips.
1. Use your powers of observation.
Uniquely wired kids struggle with communicating their feelings, thoughts and actions. But if we watch their actions more closely, over time, we can often figure out what they are trying to tell us. Behavior is communication. All the pieces to the puzzle are there. We can patiently try different ways they may fit together.
It is also important to know that children diagnosed with autism typically don't learn by watching others. They mostly learn through direct, explicit guidance. That's why picking up social cues around them can be so difficult. A child with autism may need to be specifically taught certain skills directly.
Teach your child to communicate directly and calmly to uniquely wired kids. A child on the edges of the playground may want to play, but isn't sure how to join in: "Hey Sam, let's play tag." Before getting angry that another child isn't taking turns, calmly say what you expect: "It's my turn now."
2. Have empathy-building experiences.
For many kids with autism, their sensory systems are under-filtered and super sensitive. Some children hear a sound more loudly and intensely or can't separate background noise from their teacher's voice. Others see typical lights as shockingly bright ones.
Have a discussion on what it feels like when a flash from a camera goes off right in front of you. The light is so bright that it often makes us flinch. Do you have to look away because the light is so bright?
Imagine walking in front of a car and suddenly hearing the horn honk. Are you startled?
Hold up two empty paper towel rolls to your eyes. What can you see? What can't you see? Now try to walk through a crowded room.
This is how some people tell us they experience lights, sounds and surroundings and can help your little one better understand how other kids might see things differently.
These conversations build empathy for uniquely wired kids. They also help us understand why having quiet, calming spaces and schedules or routines can make some children more comfortable.
3. Recognize similarities + celebrate strengths.
Remember that we are alike in many ways.
"I feel bad when other kids are mean to me just like you do.
I feel alone when other kids don't include me–just like you do.
I feel hungry, tired, hurt, cranky, cold, hot, thirsty, yucky and sad–just like you do.
It's just harder for me to talk about it." (Uniquely Wired, 2018, Boys Town Press)
Everyone is good at something but nobody can be good at everything. Parents, talk openly about your own strengths and struggles, successes and setbacks. Demonstrate patience, persistence, and what it can feel like to ask for help. We all are more motivated and confident when working from our strengths and interests.
The same is true for uniquely wired kids. Is your friend obsessed with watches? Time each other on an obstacle course. Is your child obsessed with rollercoasters but refuses to practice handwriting? Pretend each letter is a rollercoaster with lots of sound effects and screams.
4. Prioritize quality time with every child.
Try to give each of your children your genuine, individualized time. All kids have unique needs. Children on the spectrum may require the majority of your time, but make it a point to schedule specific quality time with each child, or ensure your child's caregivers do the same.
Make sure you find a way to be present at important events. This may mean you need to designate another person to spend time with your uniquely wired child, and that's okay. The most valuable gift you can give to your children is your authentic time.
5. Foster effective relationships.
All human relationships must have two things to thrive: trust and communication. Do your best to build trust and communication with your children and those who help them navigate the world so they feel comfortable asking you questions or talking about experiences. Be a good listener. Keep the lines of communication between home, school, friends and health care professionals open.
Acknowledge that this can be challenging, constant work. Ask schools and health providers what tools they have to make communication successful. Always remember, no one knows your child better than you do. It's also okay to not have all the answers. You are growing and learning alongside your child so finding other parents and kids who have different backgrounds and behaviors can be a great start to your journey.
Special thanks to Beth Dierker, mom of a uniquely wired child, for her insight.