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.
Emma and Balto ~ 2010
Posted in autistic, Parenting, unschooling
Tagged acting as if, age appropriate, assumptions, Autism, believing, books, communication, doing harm, leap of faith, mistakes, non-speaking, Parenting, presume competence, reading aloud, typing to communicate
The snowball effect began with, what I now think of as, a leap of faith. Richard and I leapt into that great abyss better known as the unknown. It turns out this was actually not true, it would be more accurate to say we chose to neither believe nor disbelieve, but instead began to examine all we were being told. Perhaps it’s better to say that instead of leaping into we jumped out of. From there it was more of a hop to begin presuming competence. However, as a commenter on this blog said, “presuming competence isn’t enough.” And knowing what we now know, I have to agree. It’s the starting point. It’s like that initial leaping off point, it’s just the beginning.
At the moment we are experiencing something akin to being in free fall. It’s the feeling of discovery, limitlessness, surprise, and pure ecstasy that comes with being present without expectation or preconceived ideas about what should or will happen. Our perspective continues to change as we move along. Like any great adventure, the path is at times rocky, but the triumphs are exquisite. As we move deeper into this process it becomes easier and more familiar to be solidly in the discomfort of the unknown. There is bliss in that. True bliss.
Last fall I wrote a post about how I was worried Emma was not comprehending a story that had been sent home in her back pack from school. It was a simple story, perhaps 1st grade level reading with some questions that she seemed unable to answer. In the post I write how I am trying to find ways to help her reading comprehension. I talk about presuming competence. What I am struck by now is not Emma’s level of supposed incomprehension, but by my own. I reread all the comments just now and am amazed, amazed that though I thought I was presuming competence, I was only able to go so far with my presumptions and, as it turns out, wasn’t going far enough. I could only presume as much as my limited thinking would allow me. The idea that she was not only comprehending this story, but was so far beyond it, was not something I was capable of fully understanding, let alone considering. I was much more stuck, as it turns out, than my daughter was.
Now jump forward to yesterday afternoon, almost nine months after I wrote the post I refer to in the above paragraph. Emma chose to talk about adjectives. We watched the BrainPop movie about adjectives and then she took the quiz. I copied what Rosie had done, asked her to read the questions silently to herself while using a laminated card to direct her visually and then quickly guided her to read each of the four multiple choice answers. She only hesitated once, on a question about a possessive adjective, but otherwise breezed through the quiz with 90% accuracy. Not only was Emma reading faster than I was able to, but she was accurately answering the questions faster than I could read them, let alone answer them.
The snowball effect: “The basic workings of a literal snowball effect can be illustrated by taking one’s average baseball-sized snowball and dropping it down the side of a snowy hill. As it descends it gathers more snow and whatever leaves, sticks, etc. are in its way. The snowball accumulates not only size, but speed.” ~ From the Urban Dictionary
Posted in Autism, Parenting, presume competence
Tagged Autism, autistic, beliefs, BrainPop, leap of faith, non-speaking, Parenting, progress, Reading comprehension, Rosemary Crossley, Urban Dictionary