Parenting Autism: Never Underestimate My Child’s Potential

April is Autism Awareness Month, and I’m turning over the blog to amazing parent bloggers who have kids with autism. Today’s guest post is from Emily Willingham, an autism parent, science writer and self-described “compulsive biologist” who blogs at The Biology Files and Double X Science. She also is author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology and science editor at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.

What autism means to me and my family:

I can’t say how autism stands out as having meaning in our family because it has always been a part of our family. It’s just a part of who we are, of who my son is. We don’t know anything different, and we aren’t particularly interested in knowing anything different. What we do find is that because of autism, we have become educators and advocates in ways that we hadn’t anticipated before we had children.

My child is awesome because…

My son is passionate about many things, including acorns, science, Pokemon, reading, Mario Bros., Mystery Science Theater 3000, and nature documentaries, but he’s awesome because he is effortlessly the funniest person I’ve ever met.

Three things I want other parents to know about my kid and others like him are…

1. Never underestimate his abilities. 2. Never underestimate his potential. 3. Never underestimate him.

One misunderstood thing about kids with autism is…

Many people have an impression of autism as a monolith or as two populations of people, those who are like Rain Man and those who are like Temple Grandin. In between and on either side of those high-profile representations of autism are a million gradations, and a person’s place on the autism spectrum can itself vary from day to day. As my son says, some days are more autistic than others.

Some of the best things I’ve found to help my child are…

Being there for him, using my instincts to understand him, having patience and waiting for the right moments for specific activities, conversations, and interactions, working always to understand what his behaviors are communicating to me.

My most effective parenting strategy is…

The same as the best thing I’ve found to help my child–being there for him and always focusing on what his communications tell me about his needs. One of the best decisions we made as parents was to homeschool him because I can adjust every day to his specific in-the-moment needs, cutting back on certain things on his more unfocused days, homing in on weaknesses like anything related to executive function and really taking time with it, speeding through the things that he grasps immediately, and always being able to separate the social and the academic so he can focus on each appropriately.

One of my favorite stories about my child is…

We were walking through a pretty empty mall for indoor exercise one rainy day during homeschool, and he was hanging on my arm as he always has done and continues to do. It gives him support because of his low muscle tone in his trunk, and he also likes to squeeze my arm a lot. A lot. As I often do–and as he appreciates–I said to him, “You sure are my barnacle today,” and he responded without missing a beat, “Shhh. Quiet, Mama. I’m filter feeding.” See? He’s funny.


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  1. by julie lorenzen

    On April 26, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    I love your strategy and your insights about your son’s potential. I home school my son too. We have our good days and our unfocused days as well, but I have learned so much more about him by being his primary educator. Bless you, as you continue on our journey.

  2. by Russell Hornig-Rohan

    On May 2, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    I found this article interesting because even though I was first diagnosed with autism at the age of three-and-a-half; I first had the potential to memorize the map of the United States when my mom and dad looked at a map of the United States on a shower curtain and asked me, “What state is above Texas?” and I would respond, “Oklahoma.” I feel that sometimes I tend to go off topic whenever other people are discussing a certain topic and I am working on staying on topic whenever other people are discussing a topic that might or might not interest me. The Paddle for Autism Awareness is on Saturday August 4th from 9:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. at Valentino Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

  3. by Kathryn

    On May 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    so true, i know a boy with autism who is the best artist i know and a girl with down syndrome is an amazing swimmer the best on the varsity team and she is in 8th grade