When I first heard the words “presume competence” I had no idea what that meant. I cobbled together some ideas of what I’d read and thought it meant and did my best to put them into action. I did a great deal of “acting as if” and reminded myself, when my daughter wandered off in the middle of my explaining something to her, to keep talking anyway. When she didn’t seem to look at whatever it was I was showing her I pretended that I knew she was taking it all in. I pretended I believed, even when I didn’t. And when my energy was depleted I would not place demands on either of us. If I wasn’t able to take actions that were centered in presuming competence then I tried not to take any actions at all.
In the beginning the best I could do to show a presumption of competence was to read age appropriate books to her. This was when Emma was eight years old. I still remember the first book I read that wasn’t considered “young” for her age. It was a biography of Balto, the Siberian Husky who raced through a blizzard in whiteout conditions delivering a much needed serum saving countless people sick with diphtheria in Alaska. After Balto, I read a biography of Helen Keller specifically for children and then, because Emma seemed to enjoy it so much, we read the autobiography of Helen Keller, all the Mary Poppins books, followed by The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, The Tale of Despereaux, Winn Dixie, Bridge to Terabithia, Little Women and on and on we went.
At first I was unsure whether she was even listening, let alone enjoying any of these books. But one night as she settled into bed, and when I didn’t pull out a book, Emma sat up and said very clearly and distinctly, “Helen Keller.” Emma was not typing yet, so I wasn’t completely sure she really wanted me to read Helen Keller or if she was just saying the name because it was what I’d been reading. I distinctly remember questioning whether she really wanted me to read the book because it interested her or because this was just part of an established routine and then I had a moment of guilt for doubting her.
As I said, Emma wasn’t typing yet, so there was little we could point to that backed up our decision to presume competence. There was no “evidence” to suggest what we were doing had anything to do with anything other than a hope and a wish. As presuming competence is not typically done in the general population or at any of the schools she went to, we were definitely doing things differently. There were times when I doubted what we were doing. There were times I didn’t believe. There were times I wondered – what if we’re wrong about all of this. What if what everyone says is true, really is? What if? What if?
In the end I just kept coming back to the thought that presuming competence harmed no one, but to not presume competence and to be wrong would do tremendous damage. As time went on and it became clear just how many mistakes we had made, I became more determined than ever to err on the side of support, encouragement and believing in her rather than the other way around. It is strange that the focus is so often on all that is challenging, rather than encouraging all that is not. Often that thought was the only thought that kept me moving forward. Sometimes one idea, just a single idea is all it takes.
To presume competence became a living amends and a way of life. At the very least it is something I can do that is not going to add another item to that lengthy list of mistakes made.
I wonder what it would feel like to get all the way through the parenting years and never have done a single harmful thing. I don’t think anyone will ever know because I don’t think it’s possible to do that.
Or life for that matter…
Yes…. or life.
I try to do this, often trying something new, telling myself “he can do this” – and then heartbroken I’m wrong. But, I’ll never quit trying things and always encourage so one day he might!
Ah… I think this is a common misunderstanding and I too have done the same. But presuming competence actually does not mean we believe our child can do X and then when they do not, decide it means they cannot. I wrote a couple of other posts about “presuming competence” that maybe will help clarify:
Sorry to dump so many on you… hope one of these helps.
Have you heard the phrase “least dangerous assumption”? It’s sometimes used in the academic world. I’ve tied that idea closely to presuming competence. For example….If you presume that Emma understands age appropriate content so you read her age appropriate material, does it harm? No. If you presume that Emma does not understand age appropriate material so your read her baby books, does it harm? Yes. Which assumption is the “least dangerous” one to take? It hurts no one to presume competence….to assume that she does understand and treat her accordingly. Even if you are wrong and she doesn’t understand, it still doesn’t hurt. But it does hurt her in many ways to assume that she is unintelligent. It hurts her academically, it hurts her self worth and self esteem, etc. Douglas Biklen said, “Presuming competence is nothing less than a Hippocratic Oath [first do no harm] for educators”. Presume competence….first do no harm….least dangerous assumption….they all tie nicely together. And I’ll end my meandering thoughts here….
I’m seeing this at a really rushed time but grateful to have this reinforced. Presuming competence(thank you Ariane and TPGTA ) has been the light in my life and my son’s too. We are still at the beginning and I have a lot to make up for but I see my son realizing that mom sometimes(and more and more often) has finally”gotten a clue”.
Ha! Good for you Michele. All we can do is the best we can with the information we have (and hope our children will one day forgive us.)
I just want to say thank you. The steps YOU have taken and the changes I’ve seen in YOU, having read through some of the archives in the past and coming up to where you are now, gives me a lot of hope.
I am an autistic adult, who wasn’t even aware that’s the major issue I was having until a few years ago. I’ve never been fully non-verbal, but I’m not great at communication, or always understanding what other people want or expect from me. I am very lucky in that I began speaking and reading at a very young age, so though I had a lot of other issues, my parents thought they were behavioral rather than developmental – this may seem a weird thing to consider “lucky”, but I still have a very rocky relationship with my parents, and I know that had I gotten an autism diagnosis as child, I would’ve been subjected to things like ABA therapy for a large portion of my childhood.
I just want to thank you for being open-minded, for believing in Emma and giving her the chance to show you how intelligent and amazing she is, for realizing and admitting that you made mistakes, and educating as to WHY they were mistakes. That’s HUGE, to me. It probably is to Emma, too.
I’m pretty sure she’s going to do awesome things as she grows up, and I am very excited to see what they are. With such amazing parents as she’s got, she’ll have all the support she needs.
I’m really sorry to be responding so long after you reached out. Thank you so much Kate. Really appreciate hearing your experience, thoughts and kind words of encouragement.
Ariane, boy am I glad I found you when I did! I talked about presuming competence at Olivia’s IEP meeting for kindergarten. I had them put that there would be no forced eye contact, no ABA drills and that she would be taught age appropriate material even if it seemed to her teachers that she “didn’t get it”. Luckily she has a young, enthusiastic and open teacher who is very into age appropriate academics and to my thoughts and suggestions. I don’t think I would have been privy to any of these ideas if it weren’t for your blog and Emma sharing so much with us!! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I cannot say it enough!
Although we haven’t quite delved into RPM, I have Soma’s first book and planning to try soon. I am a bit nervous as I am definitely not a teacher but I am going to try my best.
Much love to you, Emma and your family as you continue to educate and open the minds of so many others!
I’m not a “teacher” either! Good luck with all of it Kristen. And thank you for the lovely words!
Ariane, I first heard this phrase from you. I learned what it meant from you. I watched you in action and thought to myself, “If only I could do that”. I immediately made an effort to do so. I struggled with it, kicked myself in the ass, but still carried on. Our girls are very different. I don’t expect Risa to ever be at the level Emma is at. However, I know – I KNOW that my little girl understands every single word that is said about her, around her, and otherwise. And I’m still a work in progress, but YOU are the Holy Grail of presuming competence that I hold myself up to every day.
Love you, Z – Know that your words grab deep down and grab people right in the gut and in the heart. Know they see themselves in you but aren’t brave enough to write about it like you. Know that parents like myself, and thousands of others, depend on learning from your mistakes. You’re not only making amends to Emma, you’re helping the rest of us do the same along the way.
Aw… (((Ang))) Sending you guys so much love.
My daughter went from low functioning to high because I never used the appearance of her level of understanding get in the way of what I taught her. At age 15 her teacher told me she would never be able to learn and that I needed to accept it. At age 16 Rose refused to go to school and after many months of distress we landed in court where she told the judge they weren’t teaching her and you go to school to learn so there was no reason for her to be there. She was moved into the public high school where she ended up graduating in the top 13% of her class. Never assume they don’t understand because they appear to not understand.
Wonderful to hear! Thank you for sharing this.
Ariane, it’s not that you were making mistakes, it’s just that you were trusting of others (the so called experts) and their opinions on how to “treat” your daughter. And why wouldn’t you? Did you ever go down that road before? Have you experienced anything like that before? How would you ever know unless you tried all those things? You’ve left no stone unturned for your daughter, and for that you should feel very good about that. You should be proud that you have done everything the “conventional” way, which didn’t work, then ventured on your own to help your daughter. Mistake implies something wrong. And there’s nothing wrong in what you did — you are a mom first and you do, and always will do what ever it takes to help your daughter thrive! You are an inspiration.
Thank you so much Liz. What a nice comment!
Well said, Ariane! We all need to be reminded of this now and again ,too. I had a speech and language therapist refuse to work with my son when she found out he was non-verbal. She told me she only worked with “high-functioning autism” not “profound”. Her words made me feel as though I’d received a body blow, and it made me question, just like you–what if she’s right? What if everyone else is right, and I’m wrong? It’s odd to be in a position where you, as a lay person, know more than the professional “expert”. I think it can naturally create in us a sense of doubt. For me, though, at the end of the day, I put more faith and trust in my son than anyone. The so-called experts be damned, lol! I will confess, though, that I do read picture books with my son. It’s something we both enjoy, and it’s a shared experience that I wouldn’t trade. However, I don’t see any “harm” in reading him some more age-apporpriate material as well. Thank you for the reminders, Ariane–on all fronts. 🙂
Merry – this is a great point though. Who doesn’t enjoy non age-appropriate things? We ALL do! And it’s so important not to be rigid about what our kids choose to do during their down time and to relax. I need to remember to write – age appropriate materials during learning and academics – so people don’t misunderstand. Thanks so much for commenting!
Ariane, did your family do a sonrise program? Or am I mistaken? Thank you for your wonderful posts.
No, we looked into it at one point, but decided not to pursue.
Thank you for putting this out there (along with all of the other posts on this subject), This is something that needs to be implemented everywhere. I still am fighting the resistance from others regarding my kids. But I know what they have inside and the countless others out there like them.
Can i just say how much I enjoy your blog, I love hearing from both yourself and Emma. My 6 year old daughter is autistic, she is verbal but not a great communicator. At first (age 4) I was desperate to get her into a special class, to sheild her from ‘normal’ terrified that if she was amongst her peers she would feel different and would struggle. How wrong I was. It’s wonderful people like you that open parents like me’s eyes to our beautiful children. Presume competence! Perfect. That is what we now do. My lovely Piper is in a mainstream class, working at a high level with support that allows her to be herself not conform to be like others.
She is such an amazing intelligent little girl, and when she allows me glimpses into her eyes, she shows me the world from a wonderful perspective. Alot of your posts about Emma remind me of my Piper, they seem similar in some ways.
Anyway I’m waffling, just,wanted to say thank you xxx
That is so nice of you, thank you. I love the name Piper!
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Thank you on Emma’s behalf for presuming competence all parents of differently-abled kids should do so.
Reblogged this on Teachezwell Blog and commented:
Thanks to Kevin at Exceptional Delaware for helping me find this excellent blog. Read for yourself and discover the joy of hearing a kid’s true voice as well as her parents’ determination to understand what she’s saying.
I’ve only recently found your blog & it is a treasure trove! Our autism journey, whilst different in obvious ways (our son is highly verbal for instance), is similar in many others. What resonated for me in this piece is the shift we realised we also had to make; to presume competence. To encourage & support the ways our boy can navigate life & to only intervene where it’s obvious he needs guidance. The difference in him is amazing, but I think that is because of the difference in us. Each major gain in his development has come from us changing our behaviour. That’s been my greatest lesson in this journey.