I owe much of the thoughts behind this post to Ariane Zurcher, who blogs at “Emma’s Hope Book” (see my “Blogs I Follow” list) and to the documentary “Wretches and Jabberers”, about two adults with Autism who learned to communicate later in life who travel the world encouraging others to think of people with Autism as intelligent. If you know anyone with Autism or if you will at some time (that includes pretty much everyone), you NEED to see this movie. http://wretchesandjabberers.org/
I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to “presume competence” vs. presuming one to be incompetent. How many stories have we already heard of people with autism that have been assumed to have low IQs according to “experts” and tests, only to surprise everyone later in life when they are given a means to express themselves that works for them? How many more could have done so if they were given the chance? The idea sounds great, but how do I apply it to my own son?
P’s main delay is speech. Because he has not shown that he understands much of what we say, we often speak to him in short phrases, using words that we know he understands. We read books that don’t have many “unknown” words for him (although he may know them and we are just not aware) because we think that is the language he is capable of comprehending.
When I compare this approach to the way we treat R (our third child, who is two years old with no apparent delays) I can see where we may be going wrong and I believe that am holding him back. I talk to R constantly, even with words that I know she may not understand yet, because I believe that in time she will and I don’t limit myself to words that she has “proven” that she knows. What if I did the same with P? What if I assumed that he was capable, instead of making him prove constantly that he could understand? What if the way I ask “test his knowledge” is all wrong? Maybe he is annoyed at my constant quizzing and questions. I think that I would be annoyed!
In the documentary “Wretches and Jabberers,” it is said to be a “paradox” that two men with irregular patterns of movement, struggles with sensory regulation and little audible speech are completely aware of their surroundings and are intelligent, with much to say, but why do we consider it a paradox? Why do we assume that lack of speech means lack of intelligent thoughts? More importantly, what wrong assumptions have I made about my own son? I have never doubted his non-verbal intelligence, but I think I have doubted his ability to communicate.
The documentary also points out that people with autism may need additional supports, and I think that things like visual supports and writing things out are appropriate, but I can’t allow his need for those things lead me to think that he cannot communicate, and communicate well. I am challenging myself to confront my wrong assumptions and start to assume that my baby boy is capable, capable of learning without limits, capable of relating and connecting with others in a deeper way, and capable of contributing to the world around us. One of the participants in “Wretches and Jabberers” is asked if they believed that all people with autism can communicate, or if that was only for some with a “special talent.” His response was that communication is a basic human desire, not a special talent. What assumptions have you made about people around you with disabilities? Wipe the slate clean. Presume competence.