The best parenting advice I ever got was simple: presume competence.
But for a long time, I didn't get it.
Because my son Liam has autism. Because he couldn't talk, play with toys, care less about art or books, and he only wanted to bounce on his bed and play with his iTouch, I thought he couldn't learn and didn't want to. I was using the metrics of success for a "typical" child, and my kid didn't fit into any of them.
And then last year, I stumbled across this blog post by Ariane Zurcher about presuming competence, and it changed everything. There's a lot of wisdom in the post (really, really, really, read it), but here are the five biggest things I've learned about what to assume when it comes to my child's abilities:
Assume "competence" means different things (it doesn't have to mean being able to experience the world the way I do).
There are many competencies, and I need to figure out what being competent might mean for my child. (Emma Pretzel, an autistic adult, helped me think through this one in her post, where she notes: "The reason it is important to 'presume competence' is not because all people are capable of displaying 'competence,' given enough time and encouragement. We must presume competence as a way of acknowledging that competencies exist independent of our ability to identify and interpret them.")
Assume my child can and wants to learn (even if he doesn't know how to express it).
Believe it. Support it. See it in the many, many "life hacks" our kids exhibit in order to communicate, get their needs met, and try to interact.
Assume my child is ready for age-appropriate learning (that match other "typical" kids).
Liam is going into second grade, but much of the "work" he's given in his ABA time is sorting, doing 3-piece puzzles, and reading board books. What he really likes, however, is clear when he's given choices about academics (he likes math, history, and science). When he's offered bed time stories, he always chooses age-appropriate chapter books, like The Magic Tree House series, over picture books.
Assume my child is listening (because he usually is).
This is so, so important, and I've written about it before. Just because it doesn't seem like he's listening, it doesn't mean he isn't. With this in mind, I no longer talk about Liam like he's not present. He's there and he's listening, so I make a point to bring him into the conversation.
Assume my child wants a voice in the world (so I can "hear" it and help him express it).
I can't imagine how frustrating it is to have an active, agile mind and not be able to communicate. I'm certain I'd bite-hit-scream and more if I was in my child's shoes. Like many other kids with autism, Liam's "problem behavior" went way down when we upped his means of self-expression. Through a progression from signs to a PECS board to an iPad with a speech app to RPM (more on that soon, I promise), we're seeing him do more than just get his basic needs met. He's starting to tell us about his feelings and preferences, and helping him find his voice has become one of our top goals as parents.
I know this is a lot to take in, but making small changes in one of these five areas can lead to big changes over time. Since we've started presuming competence, my husband and I have changed how we talk to and about Liam, how we teach him, our hopes for his future, and how we respect his voice in our family dynamic.
One of the biggest changes, however, happens every night at bedtime and it's simple, sweet, and emblematic of how far we've come. For years, I used to just tuck him Liam in, recite Goodnight Moon (thinking that was his favorite and hoping the sound of it would lull him to sleep), and sneak out of his room once his eyes closed. Now, we have a different routine. After reading for half an hour (from age-appropriate material), I recite this affirmation to Liam:
"You are smart.
You are kind.
Every day you are learning and growing.
You are precious to me."
And every night, a small smile creeps across Liam's face as he drifts into sleep knowing he's respected and loved for who he is not who he isn't.
Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam (6) and Eliot (4). Her writing has appeared in the Autism and Asperger's Digest (2011-2013), Parents, and the book collection Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Parenting Kids with Special Needs. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton
Image provided by Jamie Pacton