“Presume Competence” – What Does That Mean Exactly?

When my daughter was first diagnosed at the age of two and a half, presuming competence was not a concept I was ever told about or had heard of.  And even if someone had suggested we do so, I’m not sure I would have fully understood what that meant exactly.  So what does “presume competence” really mean?  And how and why should we carry out a presumption of competence?

In an interview, Douglas Biklen explained:  “Assume that a child has intellectual ability, provide opportunities to be exposed to learning, assume the child wants to learn and assert him or herself in the world.”

A key component to presuming competence is to become aware of the prejudice that currently exists regarding autism and how these ingrained beliefs harm not just our children, but ALL Autistic people.   Like any prejudice, based on layers and layers of misinformation, misperceptions, and misunderstandings, we must be willing to acknowledge our own “beliefs” before we can begin to deconstruct them.

When my daughter was little with almost no language I could not understand how it was possible for her to learn to read and write if she did not speak first.  I was surprised and confused when I learned how completely wrong I was.  When I read about all the non-speaking Autistic people who had learned to read and write despite being given no formal instruction, it seemed magical to me.  This mind that seemed, from my limited perspective, to not understand so much, actually was taking in far more than I could imagine, let alone believe.  It wasn’t until I was able to see my own limitations caused by the things I had been told about autism and hence, my daughter, that I was able to move beyond that thinking and embrace another way of thinking.  I had to acknowledge my misperceptions and the misinformation I was given, then I had to question everything I thought I knew and was being told.  I had to seek out Autistic people who were kind enough to share their own experiences before I was finally able to dispense with my erroneous ideas and move beyond them.  In case anyone’s missing it, there is a certain irony in my early assumptions regarding Autistic competence.

At the Institute on Communication and Inclusion conference, which we’ve just returned from, and I began writing about in yesterday’s post, Tracy Thresher typed, “… couldn’t let anyone know I could read and I understood what was said to me the training gave me the way to communicate with others.”  On the Wretches and Jabberers website, Tracy wrote, “My communication is paramount to my well-being and is key to my being an active citizen.”  He goes on to say, “I may appear to be a man shrouded by a cloak of incompetence but if you will take the time to listen to my typing you will understand I am intelligent.”

What I have come to understand, is that a presumption of competence is much more than a set of beliefs, it is a way of interacting with another human being who is seen as a true equal and as having the same basic human rights as I have.

A presumption of competence may seem like a leap for many non Autistic people,  it may even feel like a disconnect.  Some may argue that their non-speaking child cannot possibly understand, that they know this beyond any doubt and I must ask, but how can you know this for sure?  We may tell ourselves that our child is too “severe” and we are setting them up for certain failure by presuming competence.  To these people I would suggest the opposite is true.  The only true failure is when we walk away and assume incompetence.

Presume competence means – assume your child is aware and able to understand even though they may not show this to you in a way that you are able to recognize or understand.

To presume competence means to assume your child or the other person does and can understand when they are being spoken of and to.

Presume competence means talk to your child or the other person as you would a same age non-Autistic child or person.

Read and have available age appropriate stories and give access and instruction to age appropriate learning material.

Presumptions of competence means treating the other person with respect and as an equal without pity or infantilization.

It does not mean that we will carry expectations that if not met will cause us to admonish, scold or assume the person is being manipulative or just needs to “try harder”.

To presume competence does not mean we assume there is a “neurotypical” person “trapped” or “imprisoned” under an Autistic “shell”.

Presuming competence is not an act of kindness.

Presuming competence is not something we do because we are a “good” person.

We do not get to pat ourselves on the back because we have presumed competence.  If we believe we deserve a pat on the back and/or acknowledgement, then we are not presuming competence, we are more likely being condescending.

One last thought regarding presuming competence…   to presume incompetence is to actively do damage.  Let’s all agree not to do harm to our fellow human beings.

69 responses to ““Presume Competence” – What Does That Mean Exactly?

  1. AMEN!!!!

  2. Roberta (Bertie) Lowenstein


    I love your writing and this article in particular rings so true. You are a
    gallant lady, and much appreciated and admired. Fondly, Bertie L.

  3. One way I will know that people will be presuming competence about me is when I speak to crowds along with other speakers lacking autism that the crowd will either clap for each of us or for none of us. The way it works now is that audiences typically clap for me, the autistic, and not for the non autistic speakers. I know they mean well and I also long for the day to come where I will simply be part of the fabric of my community – not less than or more than any one else – just another human being on the face of the earth. This is but one way I will know that the rest of the world is presuming competence about me!

    • Yup. So many of us are guilty of this. The polar extremes… and both are forms of the same, both create “otherness” and separation rather than being seen as just another human being on equal footing with everyone else.

  4. Katrina Phillips

    Well said, Ariane. This was a timely post too, as someone on a FB page today was in desperate search of help, clearly overwhelmed by the beginnings of the diagnostic process for her 3 year old daughter. I could not believe that you happened to post this at the same time, and I was eager to share this link with her. (as well as a link to Brenda Rothman’s “Counteracting the Deficit Model of Autism” post) I hope she comes your way as you have done such a an excellent and *honest* job documenting your journey with Emma. Everyone has so much to learn from your experiences and revelations. Thank you again, so much, for making the effort to share them. You do the entire ASD community a great, great service. ❤

  5. Love when we reach these “aha” moments in our lives…some take longer to learn and process, but learning them is most important!

  6. Wonderfully well put Ariane.

  7. It means the large handwritten note to myself on my bedroom wall that reminds me “Treat James as intelligent and that he can understand what I am saying to him. Talk to him clearly and explain to him what is going on and why we are doing things. Be patient”

  8. “Read and have available age appropriate stories and give access and instruction to age appropriate learning material.”

    so, i think tonight i may finally just read my favorite childhood chapter book to my daughter, instead of continuing to save it until she is “ready” (which in my mind was sometime at the age of like fifteen – well past the suggested reading age.)

    ..you’re blog is amazing. i always leave here with a new outlook and a different perspective. often times i think i am such an “evolved thinker” (not my best attribute, but that’s me to a fault), BUT you have helped me once again to realize that i am not quite there thank you.

    • Yay! This makes me so happy. The first book I read to Em that was age appropriate was the story about Balto. What a great book and Emma loved it. Though I didn’t know she loved it until after I’d finished it and said, “Em what do you want me to read?” and she answered, “Balto.” So I read it again and then we read the kid’s version of Helen Keller’s autobiography and we’ve never stopped. I’m reading her a terrific book about a young girl who is a synesthete called A Mango-Shaped Space.

  9. About the reading materials. Could I humbly suggest you also have on hand and in autistic friendly locations above grade level things as well… By autistic friendly locations I mean for your particular autistic. Me I liked to be under things so materials that could be accessed from under something were most likely to be taken in. Also not just books but building stuff and so on. I read a lot of Playboy when I was young (they used to publish a lot of good science fiction) and it didn’t do me any lasting damage until I got old enough that the teacher could ask what we had been reading and followed up with where had I found that story. Perhaps my father was the only man in Canada who did read it for the articles but I was covertly reading it before he realized I could and would then point out what I might especially like. (Yes I have just shocked and horrifed a number of people no doubt but the point really is when competence is not presumed you don’t get to be selective)

  10. There’s also the flip side of age appropriate. Don’t get too hung up on it. If your kid really loves someething not so age appropriate it isn’t a big deal. You’ve provided alternatives they may get something entirely different from that book you wish they would outgrow or that interest every other kid moved on from 5 years earlier.

    • These are such great additions. So I guess a better suggestion to my list would have been ~ provide an array of learning materials that include age appropriate and above and favorite below age level materials… or something like that. Certainly Em would be quite distressed if we didn’t allow her to read her Miss Spider book or watch her favorite Elmo videos.

      • Yes. I ran into philisophical issues sometimes as a respite caregiver when I had a broader range of clients because the agency was very hung up on age appropriate and thus for one client who was 13 but had to sleep in a crib, and was very, restricted in almost everyway they were keen to make her room more teenaged girl like. The thing that gave her the most joy was this wind up duck I think it was that ran around the rails of her crib. She was in actual pain and obvious distress a lot of the time and she loved that duck and some moron with a Master’s Degree tried to convince her mother and I the duck had to go. I was glad I was there because while the mom was strong she said later she tended to give in when suggestions came from service providing agencies. Rolls eyes. Like a Justin Bieber poster (or whoever was Justin Bieber back then…) would have given as much enjoyment as that danged duck.

  11. Presuming competence is so important… although I sometimes struggle with what it means in practice. My nonspeaking girlie has (we believe) very severe auditory processing difficulties, and can only understand parts of spoken language. I don’t know which parts, however. With limited feedback, I’m unsure how much of what I say registers with her. Am I confusing her? Boring her? Does a longer, more detailed explanation give her more opportunity to understand, or more opportunity to get confused? It’s a daily balance of trial and error. But I always, always, believe in her intelligence, her memory, her reasoning, her comprehension. She wows me so many times with a brilliant mind unlimited by words.

    • We have similar questions for similar reasons. And like you we believe in her intelligence, memory, reasoning, creativity, comprehension and no longer ask her to prove this to us. I think (for us anyway) the biggest piece of the presuming part is letting go of our need that she constantly prove herself.

      • The having to “prove” yourself is time consuming, exhausting, demeaning, etc etc. etc. It’s like (in part) when a homeschooled child gets “quizzed” by people, hoping they can “prove” that the kid does/doesn’t know what they are “supposed” to.

  12. I don’t know if it will be true for your child adkyrioloxy but some things I heard when I couldn’t understand them were still remembered so when I did they were still there. That’s part of why I feel so strongly about it being important how you speak about your child when the child is there. Since I still sometimes experience times in extreme stress where both speech and comprehension go that mechanism still works the same way for me as in I can rewind it after the fact and add them up again but I know others who don’t retain memories the way I did.

    It’s great to me that more parents are presuming competence because just ten years ago I sometimes felt like the notion was completely alien to people.

    • I can do that sometimes, too. Sometimes it’s just gone (I have CAPD, too, just not as severe as my daughter’s—I can understand about 85% of everyday spoken language, and I’m guessing she can understand maybe half… but again, I have no idea which half!).

  13. All i can say is how awesome this post is! I love it!

  14. Presuming competence works not only for Autism but also for other “disabilities” too I cannot tell you how many people presume I’m incompetent just because I’m in a wheelchair. Why can’t people assume i’m competent? What harm would that do?

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  19. I am new to this and am teaching a young boy with ASD and I get very little output from him. He stubbornly refuses to do anything and does not do anything in class unless rewarded. So when the other children go to write a story , do I just let him sit there and scribble or go and play on the computer or do I help/ model it for him?

    • A couple things here – do not assume he is “stubbornly” refusing to do anything. Try to think about it this way – pick a topic you find incredibly challenging, something you did not do well in when you were in school. Now add to this challenge the fact that most of the adults you interacted with assumed you were not only incapable of a great many things that you could learn and do, but you couldn’t tell them you were. You had no way of communicating these things, either because you couldn’t retrieve the right words to do so, or you tried and were ignored or misunderstood. Resistance is common, but thinking that it is willful refusal is adding a layer to an already difficult situation. Don’t think for a second that he hasn’t picked up on your frustration with him.
      If a child is not learning, do not assume it is a decision on his part not to, rather assume there is a different way to teach the material that will better work with this child.
      Presuming competence does not mean any child can learn the way we might expect. Presuming competence means a person is capable and able to learn given the “necessary” and “right” accommodations for that child.
      The other thing is this – feeling frustrated, having doubts, these are all things most of us who are not autistic feel from time to time. But it is imperative that we work through those feelings so that we can help our kids. They need our help to flourish and succeed.
      And lastly, if you haven’t done so already – you must watch the documentary – Wretches and Jabberers. It’s available on Netflix and iTunes. You can also find a link to it by going to the “Resources” page on this blog.
      I hope you’ll stay in touch and tell me how things go.

    • I second what Ariane has said below. I’d add that some of the things used to motivate a non-autistic child in a classroom setting – both positive and negative motivators – won’t apply with a child with autism or will apply to a lesser degree. For example if there is an understanding that doing what your peers or the group is doing is a socially good thing to do (i.e. everyone else is doing what the teacher says so I should) may not apply. In fact in this example the non-autistic children are in fact getting a ‘reward’ for carrying out activites; they get peer and teacher approval, and they avoid admonishment, but for the autistic child this may not have the same level of motivation, so other types of motivator need to be found.
      These can be faded or altered with time, for example my son who is non-verbal and has intellectual disability now loves being told he is a good boy or doing well at something and this motivates him, it only used to be M&Ms 🙂 .

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  25. Two things. First, I think that is a great point – and one that should make it into the school of thought on “mainstream” kids too. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been given weird looks for using big/hard words with my young kids – even if I define them. I’m talking about words like discord, precise, or abundance not words you might find on the SAT.

    The second thing is a question. I was wondering, why do you capitalize the word autistic (and not the word autism)? I don’t mean to be rude, and my apologies if this comes out as such, but I couldn’t think of a better way to find out if I was missing something than to ask.

    • To answer your question, (and I’m eager to hear from Autistic people who might like to weigh in as to preference and the reason for it) I capitalize Autistic as, for many, it represents a community and an identity and, as such, it is respectful to do so.

      • Interesting. To my recollection, I have not seen an adjective used that way before – save ones that are derived from words that are so-called “proper nouns” and themselves capitalized (e.g. European from Europe). So, that was something new for me – always a good thing!

        Thank you for answering. I was a bit worried nobody would. I like to understand (or at least try) where other people are coming from. 🙂

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  29. Shannon, not sure if it applies where you are, but in Australia, people who identify with the deaf community and use Auslan (sign language) to communicate are referred to as (capital D) Deaf, whereas those who have a hearing loss are referred to as deaf or hard of hearing, similar to the way Autistic is used here.

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