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Parent Tip: Immerse Yourself in Autism

  • Posted on July 26, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Cultural immersion is the idea that idea that you learn about another culture more quickly and more thoroughly if you immerse yourself in that culture. Student who study abroad through an immersion program will travel to another country and live in that country—speaking the language, learning the culture, adapting to the country’s way of life—to improve their understanding of that country and that language, but also to broaden their understanding of global affairs. Cultural immersion programs are touted as a great source of learning.

Compare that to typical American tourism. As Americans, we go into another country, expecting them to speak English we can understand. We visit the sights, but see them only from our own perspectives. We wear our American clothes, carrying around our American baggage, and cop our American attitudes. We often come off as rude, insensitive, and ignorant.

An orientation meeting happens when you start a new job with a new company. If you are one of many new hires, there’s an actual orientation meeting. If you are a single hire, this often comes in the form of a personal tour and a stop at human resources. Either way, your new employer orients you to the culture of the organization you’ve just joined. Some of that orientation will be more about what the organization intends to be, rather than what it is, but even there you’re learning about the organization’s culture.

Compare this to times where you may have started a new job and been plopped down to work without much of an introduction. Disorienting, wasn’t it?

On the surface of things, parenting a child with autism is like being forced into an immersion program. For most people, this may be their first introduction to the disability community. They have to navigate the worlds of special education and special needs medical care with no training and no orientation. They have to figure it out for themselves or find people who can help. All the while, you also have to learn about your child’s disability and ways to help your child.

That sounds a lot like immersion, and I suspect we’ve all been there to one degree or another. After all, we’re being forced—against our will—into the world of disabilities, with all the systems and trappings that go with that.

A lot of parents seem to stop with that level of immersion. They stay in the adult world where all their energies and resources revolve around dealing with their child’s autism—dealing with their child.

It’s like American tourism or the disorienting non-orientation. It’s overwhelming, it’s intense, but it doesn’t help you to understand your child.

In order to immerse yourself in autism, you have to make a shift in your mind. Do you really want to deal with your child? Or do you want to understand your child? If you really want to understand your child, you have to immerse yourself in your child’s world—not the world of disabilities—and connect with your child as a fellow human being. The problem, of course, is that people with autism seem—and truly can be—disconnected from their fellow human beings.

It’s more than just a different culture; it’s a different way of experiencing the world and the people within the world.

It’s true that you still have to immerse yourself in the world of disabilities, because those are the systems our society creates to deal with people with disabilities. But your child is more than just a problem to be dealt with. He or she is a human being you love and care about and want to have a relationship with. In order to do that, you need to connect with him or her. Don’t be an American tourist, expecting your child to bridge the neurological gap. After all, if your child could do that, then he or she wouldn’t be diagnosed with a neurological disability. Immerse yourself in your child’s world. Speak your child’s language, experience your child’s world, experience your child’s way of being. Let that experience broaden your understanding and bridge the gap between yourself and your child.

Autism doesn’t have to be your enemy. Your child certainly should not be your enemy. It’s within your power to attain understanding. Take a step into your child’s world and experience it for yourself.

Light Box

  • Posted on July 1, 2013 at 10:00 AM

My brother, Patrick, is a fabulous uncle to his three autistic nephews.

Now, in our case, we’re luckily enough to be blessed with a really understanding, supportive family who not only accept that our boys are different, but go out of their way to accommodate these three precious members of the family. We’re surrounded by this loving effort year-round, on all sides.

And I know this is a substantial blessing, because I talk to other parents and am often saddened to hear how other autistic children are excluded from events shared by their families. I think back to when the boys were little and none of us knew what was going on and remember just how hard it all was for everyone. So, I get it. I do.

But, at the same time, I don’t, because once we knew what we were dealing with our entire family made an effort to include these three special children. No ONE, not even one member of my family, has made my boys unwelcome. It took effort on all our parts, but the effort was made. And it works. Sure, our family events are different than they otherwise would be, but they do work. And, believe me, I know how lucky we are and how very blessed we are, because I couldn’t do what I do without all this wonderful, heart-warming support.

So, it’s not like my brother is a novelty when it comes to embracing my children as they are.

And yet, my brother is a novelty, because he gets my boys in a way that nobody else does, that nobody else would think of. Including me. Including Mark. Patrick understands a part of them that is its own special connection. And I’m constantly astounded by this, because he’s able to do this despite the distance that often separates us all.

My brother came for my commencement ceremony and during this visit the magic happened with a light box. Technically, a light box is not a toy. It’s a fancy tool that artists and architects use to do work. Patrick had one, and he decided to give it to his nephews.

M – A – G – I – C

It’s that simple.

Willy was fascinated. Alex was captivated. And Ben…adorable Ben. I turned around and saw Ben listening to the light. He was smiling, enjoying it, and listening to the light. I haven’t tried, so I don’t know if I could hear what he heard. But…that was so Ben and so strangely appropriate.

M – A – G – I – C

I can encourage my boys in their art. I can supply them with materials. I can look for opportunities. And I’m not alone in this. Many members of our family have contributed to their love of art, which gives them such joy.

But my brother understands this on a deeper level. On a light box level. And it’s its own kind of magic.