Tag Archives: Mentorship

Your Child’s Been Diagnosed. Now What?

I always think I’ve written something already about any given topic only to realize there is more to add.  So it was the other day when asked about advice for a parent whose child was just diagnosed with autism.  This is a question that comes up often and always when asked I hesitate and here’s why.  For every child that might respond to various “interventions” the way my daughter did, there will be countless others who will not.  The therapy may be worse or better.  The child may have different sensory issues, they may be voracious readers, hyperlexic or they may not be able to see the printed word because of visual issues, the letters may swim on the page until a different background is found or some other tweak is done, which allows everything to stay still.

There may be auditory issues that my daughter does not share, tactile, physical issues and the list goes on.  So what to do?  How does a parent wade through all the opinions?  How do you find a way to quell your fear, respect your child, ignore that list of all that’s wrong and find the things that will help your child flourish?

For me it boils down to two essentials.  The first is to presume my child competent.  I’ve written about this concept a great deal, but here are a few posts which talk about what that means – ‘here‘, ‘here‘, ‘here‘ and ‘here‘.  Presuming competence is very much a work in progress.  What I once presumed as “competent” my daughter has shown me didn’t go nearly far enough.  We do the best we can with the information we have.  But anything intended to “help” my daughter, anyone who is going to be spending time with her, must understand the concept and be committed to putting it into action.  This includes, speaking to her and not about her in her presence.  It means, even if the child shows no sign of understanding, even if the child has no spoken language and has never written a single word, we assume they can understand more than their bodies and gestures and utterances indicate.

Presuming competence has evolved for me and is helped by keeping my fear, judgment and assumptions checked at the door.  I cannot presume my daughter capable if I am simultaneously engaged in a running list of all she’s doing wrong.  I cannot practice a presumption of competence if every interaction I have with her is really an ongoing test where I’m insisting she prove herself to me.  Presuming competence is a life long practice and it is has far-reaching implications for not just my daughter, but all human beings I come into contact with.

Presuming competence is key, without doing this, everything else I do, no matter how great my intentions, will fall flat.  I have to believe in my kid.  It means that I speak to my child the same way I would speak to any child their age.  It means I approach my child believing in their ability to learn.  It means I believe they can and will learn.  It means they will communicate, I just have to find the best way to support them so that they can and it may not be with spoken language.  It means any therapy, no matter how popular, must be based in presuming my child competent, respecting my child’s process and treating them with the same respect I would insist on for anyone coming into contact with my non autistic child.  It means I have to do the inner work regarding what I believe, notions of should and shouldn’t, entitlement, prejudices, and whatever ideas I may have about my child and who they should be.  It means I approach my child with love, consideration, respect and curiosity.

I have come to believe that services, those services that everyone talks about and that are centered on our children, should include services for parents.  Early intervention for parents is crucial and much needed.  We parents are often in greater need of help and support than our children.  Good quality respite care, therapy for us, the parents, designed to help us cope and sort through our messy emotions so that we are in a better position to be there for our children.  I needed support from parents who’ve traveled the path I now found myself on.  No parent should ever feel the kind of fear I once felt.  Which means we have to change the current conversation surrounding autism if we are going to help our children.  No one is helped by having their every flaw (which is completely subjective, by the way,) scrutinized, both publicly and privately.  There are ways to get support and the help we and our kids need without demonizing our children and talking about them in ways we would never allow people to speak about our non autistic children.

Which brings me to the second essential thing – Autistic people.  It is imperative that all parents be given a list of blogs written by Autistic people who are describing their experience of the world.  This has to be essential reading while we figure out a way to put into place advisory programs made up of Autistic adults who are able to help parents understand their children.  These must be paid positions just as all other people involved with early intervention are paid.

We need mentorship programs of Autistic people mentoring our kids AND mentorship programs where our Autistic kids are mentoring younger Autistic and non Autistic kids.  One of the most valuable relationships my daughter currently has is with a little boy who shows no signs of being Autistic himself.  But they enjoy being together and the boy’s parents encourage their relationship. An inclusive society is key as we move forward.

On the Resources page of this blog I’ve put together a fairly extensive list, beginning with non-speaking Autistic people’s blogs.  I am always adding to this list.  I encourage all parents to start clicking on those blogs, find the ones that resonate and speak to you and follow them.  Start commenting on them, reach out to others who share your child’s neurology, develop relationships.  Listen and learn.  You will learn more from doing this than anything I learned in the half-dozen years I spent listening and reading non autistic people’s opinions.

And finally this is a short list of what I consider essential reading/viewing for anyone who has an Autistic child.

Wretches and Jabberers
Ido in Autismland
Intense World Theory of Autism

Emma and Teddy

Emma and Teddy

Emma, Barb Rentenbach and Lois Prislovsky

Emma, Barb Rentenbach and Lois Prislovsky

Emma, Mark Utter and Ibby at the ICI Conference - July, 2013

Emma, Mark Utter and Ibby at the ICI Conference – July, 2013

Emma and Laura

Emma and Laura

Emma and Ibby

Emma and Ibby

Larry Bissonette takes Emma's photograph

Larry Bissonette takes Emma’s photograph

Emma and Henry

Emma and Henry

Autistic Role Models and Mentoring

In addiction recovery, specifically in 12-step programs, mentoring (they use the word sponsorship, but it’s the same thing) is a key component to staying clean.  Within the “civilian” population, as addicts refer to those who are not addicts, most people who have achieved any degree of financial success, climbed the corporate ladder and found even a modicum of happiness in their chosen careers will cite at least one person in their life who served in the role of mentor.  Mentors (a good one) can open doors, provide insights, gently propel you down the right path when you’ve gone astray.   Good mentors mentor because they understand the joy of giving, of being generous to those just starting out, of helping another who may be struggling, of reaching out a hand in support to someone less fortunate and expect nothing in return.  They understand the joy of giving is how they also receive.  The founders of AA understood that no one understands another alcoholic as well as an alcoholic and to stay sober, one must “be of service.”

On a personal note (and this blog seems to have fallen off the precipice of vague, broad sweeping generalities and is now firmly rooted in personal, blatant, unabashed honesty) I became intimately familiar with mentoring when I most needed one.  I was in my thirties, I was searching for a way out of the hole I’d dug myself (click ‘here‘ and ‘here‘ for more on that) and I was told, “find someone who has what you want and ask them to sponsor you.”   It was also advised that I find a female to avoid any “conflict.”  So I promptly approached a man in his 60’s, who worked a blue collar job.  A big, craggy guy with more than two decades of sobriety under his belt and almost as many from an eating disorder.  He had “lost the desire to eat compulsively” and since that was akin to finding the holy grail, as far as I was concerned, he fit the criteria for “having what I wanted.”  When I asked him, he looked a bit taken aback, but graciously accepted and so began one of the most important relationships I had in those early years as I struggled to emerge from my various addictions and find my way in the world.  That man helped me.  He had no degree or training, by the world’s standards of “success” he certainly fell short, but he had a lifetime of personal experience to impart.  He was as unlike me as one human being could be from another, except for one – he knew what it was to struggle with an addiction and come out the other side.  He was kind, compassionate, patient and generous, and with his guidance I felt the joy of connecting with another human being who knew intimately what I was going through, while trusting that if I followed his lead, I had a chance of coming out the other side.  I have since had the privilege of mentoring a great many others over the years.

We all need mentors.  (It is equally crucial we also become mentors.)  People we can turn to who have been where we currently find ourselves.  People who can guide us, whether it’s in our relationships, our careers or just in living life more fully.  Mentorship can mean a great many things to different people, but finding someone who “has what you want” is a pretty good starting point.  Which brings me to autism and my dream for my daughter, Emma.  I would love to think she might find a few Autistic adults to mentor her.  Autistic adults who might help her as she grows older, who want to take her under their wing and be a presence in her life.  An adult who is not her parent.  Come to think of it, I want this for both my children.  I don’t know how to orchestrate that.  But it’s something I think about a great deal.

Yesterday’s post, Wretches and Jabberers – Defying Labels was inspired by some wonderful comments from the day before.  One commenter, (Lauri who very generously agreed to let me share one of the video clips she sent me, you can see the others ‘here‘ ) told me about her son, H. whose life was transformed when he met his idols, Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher (the stars of Wretches and Jabberers.)  She described how they spent a long evening communicating with one another.  She wrote how Larry and Tracy “have continued to nurture, support and mentor H in ways that are really magical.” Lauri wrote – “Here is a video Henry and I made last summer, it shows the magical ( I know that may sound trite, but it really was/is magical) connection he has with his mentors and friends Tracy and Larry.”

For my daughter I want an Autistic Adult with whom she might form a meaningful relationship with.  Ultimately Emma must choose such people for herself, I can only offer situations that might encourage this.  What they do or don’t do for a living is not something I care about.  I am much more interested in who they are as human beings.  The people I am drawn to have a couple of things in common.  Each of them has struggled, experienced hardship, worked through fear, taken risks, and maintained a sense of humor.  That’s the criteria for any mentor I am interested in, however Emma’s criteria may be different.  To all who have served as mentors and role models in my life and there are many, I am deeply grateful to each and every one of you.

One such role model, Amy Sequenzia, (I have written about Amy before, a non-speaking Autistic adult, self advocate, poet and writes often at Ollibean) has agreed to an interview with me.  I know many of you may have questions for her and she has agreed to answer as many as she can.  So if you want to ask Amy something, please list your questions in the comments section of this post and I’ll make sure she receives them.  Thank you Amy for agreeing to do this!

Emma – 2008