Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Achieving Autistic Potential

*Note: Some of the posts this year are not exactly about autism acceptance but show such an accepting attitude toward autism that they are being included. This post on achieving Autistic potential discusses schooling and the importance of learning in Autistic-specific ways.

Achieving Autistic Potential

I am endlessly fascinated by the lack of mainstream awareness of the potential of autistics. I work with families who think their Aspie child will not be able to go to university, hold down a job or a relationship. I meet autistic children who are not seen to have the potential to read or type because they are currently non oral.

I am not an anomaly. I am not atypical for an Aspie, and I work, have just submitted my PhD, have a long term partner, helped raise a child, run a business etc most of the Aspies that I know in person or online have degrees, have had or are in long term relationships, have had or do have successful careers. I know autistics studying part time at university and doing volunteer work, I know non oral autistic adults who write prose far better than I could ever hope to. Why, I wonder, are these autistic potentials not shared in the wider world outside of our autistic community?


More than this, I question why some of us experience more anxiety or less confidence than others. Minimising anxiety and maximising confidence seem to be key components of achieving autistic potential. I was brought up to believe I could have any career I wanted, I was expected to go to university. When other people put me down or said I could not achieve something, I presumed they were stupid, because I believed in my own competence. I believed in myself because my parents and teachers believed in me. Yes, I admit, I am one of those academic nerdy people, loved learning at school etc etc. But before you think, well my student or child could not achieve anything, pause a moment and reflect:


- Autistic adults who are non oral can read and type, writing powerful and emotive poetry, stories and non-fiction
- Autistic who were non oral until they started school have gone on to lecture at university, write books, make lots of money
- Aspie adults who lacked interest in many aspects of school and focused on their strengths and interests go on to develop incredible skills in their areas of interest, many of which enable these adults to pursue careers in these areas
- Stroppy Aspie girls can grow into strong secure Aspie women, gaming fanatic Aspie boys can grow into computer programmers who make more money in a week than many people many in a year.


Our autistic potential exists because we naturally want to spend time doing things we are interested in. This is often described as obsessing or fixating, but if that interest turns into a career is that obsession healthy or unhealthy? Our autistic potential also exists because of our natural attention to detail and desire to perfect the things that we choose to do. Perfectionism can be a curse, but the drive behind it can propel us into success. 

Our autistic potential is hindered when we lack self belief or others lack belief in us. It upsets me everytime someone presumes that autistics lack potential. But even more crucially our potential can be blocked by anxiety and sensory overload. It is not possible to learn and grow if you are constantly stressed and anxious, or spending all your energy trying to deal with sensory overload.

I wore headphones all through university, at school my classrooms were quiet and I could learn. Some classrooms I visit now are so vibrant, busy and full of children collaboratively discussing their work that I need to leave within an hour. I have a choice, an autistic student may not… How are they supposed to learn, to develop their autistic potential when they are overloaded by the vibrancy and busyness of their classroom? As a result these autistic children do not appear to make progress and/or exhibit challenging behaviours. Often, these very same children will read incessantly at home, but struggle to read basic books at school.

Aspie kids have another barrier to achieving their potential. They, I included, often refuse(d) to do school tasks they perceive as pointless/boring/way too easy. Their teachers often think the students are not working because they don’t know what to do or how to do it, when in fact they are too bored to do it! Many many Aspie kids and adults have an innate arrogance about their intelligence which they may or may not share with others (both of which have drawbacks). Because of this arrogance they often do not feel it is worthwhile doing things that are not interesting or challenging. These are the children making and selling computer games or jewellery or studying archeology age 8-10, but doing very little at school. One of the reasons I loved school so much was that I was given work at my own level, so maths and Latin 3-5 years above my age, but English the same as my peers. I was also allowed to do a special interest project every term in my primary years. In high school I would spend hours and hours at home on my art projects and five minutes on all my homework combined. Introducing new skills and topics via special interests gets around this issue and pitching work too hard not too easy is more likely to engage an Aspie child. Setting practical rather than written assignments may work for aspies and autistics who struggle to write. 

But mostly, he most important facilitator or the achievement of autistic potential is having a belief in the competence and potential of autistic kids. Sharing stories of autistic adults and the range of abilities and careers they have will normalise the idea of working. Teaching strategies to succeed in whatever area facilitates success. No-one needs to talk to be intelligent, it is others who need to learn to listen to unspoken words. No-one needs good facial recognition to be able to learn calculus. What we need is to be interested and engaged. Good teachers and kind parents can drive the achievement of autistic potential by using topics that interest their autistic students and presentation methods that engage these students. Universities and employers can continue to facilitate autistics achieving their potential by being clear about their expectations, saying what they mean, meaning what they say and having low sensory environments. This minimises our anxiety and sensory inputs so that we can work hard, using our innate drive to learn, do, master things and achieve.

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