For children with autism, don't set the bar too low

Lisa Jo Rudy

Not too many people with disabilities become role models for the rest of the world.

Some, like Stevie Wonder, are just so talented and able in a particular area that their disability seems to become unimportant. Stevie Wonder's musical talent loses nothing as a result of his blindness.

But others, like Helen Keller and Temple Grandin, are held up as models because they worked like demons to achieve their goals despite ongoing, extraordinarily difficult challenges. Helen Keller became an intellectual and author, in the face of almost unimaginable odds. Temple Grandin became a world-renowned expert in animal husbandry and an international speaker and writer, daily facing and conquering her very real autistic challenges.

What do Keller and Grandin have in common? Both had parents who understood and accepted their daughters' differences, but were unwilling to accept a disability as an excuse for poor behavior, laziness or self-indulgence. Both had teachers who believed in their abilities without whitewashing their challenges. And both, of course, had considerable abilities and ambition - though those qualities were not evident in their earliest years.

In many ways, we live in a culture which allows children to do less than they're able to do... and rewards children for mediocre efforts. This, in many cases, goes double and triple for kids with disabilities including autism.

All too often, well-meaning adults substitute pity and compassion for understanding and respect. Caring teachers allow children with autism spectrum disorders to step away from even the slightest social and sensory difficulties, rather than providing the tools and resources to meet the challenge. Loving parents protect their children with autism from the world, stepping in to speak and act for their child rather than helping their child to do more for themselves. Special "autism events" are set up in the community which allow children with autism to experience various settings without any hope or expectation that they will learn how to conduct themselves properly in venues like theaters, museums, zoos and the like.

Of course, not every person with autism can manage full inclusion in school or community. Nor should they be expected to do so. But, like most people, children with autism need others around them to challenge, support and cheer them on as they struggle with difficult tasks, achieve unexpectedly high goals, and cope with the ups and downs that life throws at them. When those around them step in to take over too soon, children learn that it's easier to just stand back.

A child with autism may not be able to manage the smells of the lion house at the zoo. But they may well be able to quietly watch the reptiles in the scent-free reptile house, with no need for shouting, bolting, or banging on the glass. A child with autism may not be able to manage a 45 minute grocery trip. But they may well be able to handle a quick trip, helping select a few items and put them in the cart and on the counter. A child with autism may not be able to sit through an entire puppet show, story hour or concert. But they may well be able to sit through a portion of the presentation - and then indicate that they are ready to leave without disrupting the entire venue.

Bottom line, children in general - and children with autism included - can rise to meet high expectations. It's up to the adults in their lives to provide both those expectations, along with the encouragement, support, cheers and coaching they need to achieve.

When we set the bar too low, we may do our children a real disservice.

Courtesy of Lisa Jo Rudy's blog on A New York Times Company.

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