Thursday, April 2, 2015

Day 2: Acceptance is Respect

Another key ingredient to autism acceptance is respect.

Respect comes in many different forms.

As Jess from Diary of a Mom explains, “A message of respect doesn’t mean there are no tough days, no challenges…but it does mean that we need to carefully incorporate autistics into these message and not lose sight of their value and dignity.”

Here are five ways to show respect to autistic individuals:

1)   Respect by communicating in new and different ways, and listening beyond words to truly understand.
Most individuals on the autism spectrum have difficulty communicating with others.  My son has pragmatic language delays.  Pragmatic, or social language, includes things such as initiating a conversation with another person, talking back and forth, and building off the ideas of others.  This is why I encourage the server at the restaurant to ask Ben for his order, along with the barista at Starbucks, and the teller at Toys R Us.  There are few ways to make conversation easier for an autistic person.  First, give them plenty of time to think before expecting them to answer a question.  This may mean pausing for an almost uncomfortable amount of time to allow the person time to process and think.  This may also mean understanding that the person may not give you eye contact or respond in traditional ways.  Some people on the spectrum communicate through scripts, which could be memorized snippets of dialogue from movies, TV shows, or You Tube videos.  Others, like my son, like to ask certain questions over and over, because he seeks comfort in the familiarity of the routine and the security of the answers.  Pay attention to the context in which the words are used rather than the words themselves to discern what the person is truly trying to say.  Carefully observe the person's actions and gestures, as these will often convey more meaning than the words alone.  Some individuals on the spectrum cannot speak, but this does not mean that they have nothing to say.  Communicate with them anyway.  Respect that when a person is upset or in the throes of a meltdown, their language may shut down completely.  Respect the person's need for space and a safe place to find their calm again.

2) Respect the power of words and talk about strengths first
Too often, conversations about autism focus on a person’s deficits.  I’ve seen many instances where adults discuss a child’s autism in negative terms in front of the child!  The adults have no idea the damaging impact of their words can have.  Instead of focusing on a person’s weaknesses, flip the script and talk about strengths. Look for examples of what the person is doing well and encourage
these positive behaviors. 

3)    Respect by learning from the perspectives of others. 
Remember that autism is a spectrum and others will have different points of view based on their experiences.  You may not agree with everyone’s philosophy but respect that their journeys are different from yours.  Listen to autistic adults, because they understand autism better than any professional.  We must respect others for their place in this journey but this does not mean that we have to compromise our own beliefs. 

4)   Respect by practicing inclusion.
I’ve read so many sad articles that go something like this.  An autistic child invites every kid in his class to a birthday party, only to have no one show up.  It’s important to remember that autistic individuals may have difficulty with peer relationships, but they still want to be included.  Show respect by including them in birthday parties, events, and family gatherings whenever possible.  Seek to make the environment as comfortable as possible.  And show kindness and understanding if the person needs a quiet space when the environment becomes too overwhelming.   Inclusion has be more than simply a name.  It take active involvement to make it truly work.  Ben has been lucky to be part of an inclusion classroom this year and he has made so many friends who he spends time with both in and out of class.  This could not happen without the amazing team of teachers who work hard to create a loving, supporting environment for him and his classmates.  He also has a loving family who accepts him for who he is and he has had more trips and adventures in his short life than many adults!  He has traveled by train, airplane, cruise ship, and everything in between!  Inclusion benefits everyone.  

5)   Respect by avoiding assumptions and stereotypes

There are so many myths out there about autism that can be downright damaging.  Some that are particularly hurtful are the myths that autism is caused by bad parenting, and that autistic people feel no empathy or affection.  These myths are not only untrue but perpetuate feelings of pity and place barriers between autistics and the rest of the world.  My son doesn’t need people to feel sorry for him.  He is a vibrant child with many talents and strengths.  He may have different challenges from other children, but we are addressing these and he is showing growth every day.  He is also one child with autism.  He does not represent every autistic person.  He is different from his best buddy in his class who also happens to have autism.  Both boys are quite different from many, many others on the spectrum.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking you know everything about autism because of your experience with one person.  

The best way to show respect is to value the individual and his or her unique strengths.  Seek to understand and learn from that person.  You’ll be happy you did!

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