“The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.” — John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
My ten year old son has high functioning autism. Like most people, when I homeschool him, I focus quite a bit on his challenges, and much less on his strengths. Yet it is the strengths of children with autism, as much as their challenges, which make them special.
Our strengths are what people love about us first, before they come to love us as a whole person, strengths and weaknesses and all. For children with autism, their strengths are their power in the world. Their strengths come in all forms, from persistence to passion to focus. It is what makes them who they are.
I first recognized my son’s ability to focus, almost to the exclusion of everything else, when he was very young. It is a quality many people with autism possess. My son could spend hours building a Lego set designed for a much older child, concentrating with a determination that would have been admirable for an adult, much less a preschooler. That focus is right now limited to things he loves — like Legos and Pokemon — but it’s there, lying in wait for when he wants it, or needs it.
My son’s other strengths were harder to see and matured much later: his passion, and his sense of humor. Passion keeps him doing the things he loves, over and over, until he is an expert in them. The passion is almost obsession, and he is passionate almost to a fault, throwing himself so fully into everything he does and loving so deeply that sometimes it overwhelms him. As he grows, he’ll learn to temper that passion so that every disappointment is not deep enough to cut his heart in two…but right now it’s raw passion, deep and strong, and it colors everything he does.
Humor is a surprising strength, and one that I had to have someone else point out to me. The raw emotion that children with autism deal with each day can actually be smoothed over by their sense of humor. When my son is frustrated, he can be encouraged to laugh, and that dispels the worst of the anger or anxiety that he had been feeling, maybe not immediately, but certainly later, when he’s had a chance to calm down from the raw emotion. It’s a wonderful and powerful gift, the gift of laughter, and it will serve him well as an adult, when the world is unfair and he has to live with the hand he’s been dealt.
And ultimately, our job as a parent extends far beyond just feeding, clothing, and providing for the emotional needs of our children at the moment. Parenting any child, including those with autism, involves helping them recognize their own strengths, and teaching them how those strengths more than make up for any weaknesses they may have. Only when they understand that they are capable human beings and can use their gifts to his fullest advantage, has any parent fully done their job.
To read more from Susan, visit her blog at blog.susancalistri.com.