Autism is . . . My Greatest Teacher by Tammy Graham
Many people compliment me on having the courage to homeschool my daughter Beth, who is 5 years old and has autism. I never know how to take the compliment. Beth’s communication of basic needs and her ability to relax is nearly absent in busy environments, so homeschooling is the only thing that makes sense for Beth right now. I didn’t choose this path; it chose me.
Many people also compliment me on my creative teaching ideas. Again, I don’t know how to take this compliment. All the best ideas, the ones that really help Beth move forward, originate from Beth herself. Beth is showing me how to teach her. All I need to do is carefully observe her for signs of interest and enjoyment, and then I create opportunities to help her go where she wants to go.
In reality, Beth has taught me more than I have taught her. I knew that having a child would be an enriching experience, but having a child with autism has taught me more than I ever thought possible. Here is a partial list of my lessons learned, written with gratitude to my daughter Beth:
Persistence. When you were first diagnosed, I wanted to change you, fix you, and make you “normal.” It pains me now to write that, but it is true. You rejected and fought every attempt I made to interact with you “typically.” Finally, I realized that the only way to teach you, help you, and reach you, was to follow your lead. It is so simple and obvious now. Thank you for your persistence in holding on to your beautiful and strong spirit, and for teaching me how to respect your different-ness.
Acceptance. In teaching and play, I use your interests and follow your subtle cues that show enjoyment or disinterest to change my approach during an activity. My goal is to make interactions and things I teach you more meaningful and enjoyable to you, and to increase our understanding of each other. I have learned that the more I respect and accept you and your autism, the more we enjoy living and learning together.
Living in the moment. The pace at which you live is very different from my natural tendency. You notice and appreciate the wonder in every sight and sound: the patterns on wallpaper, a small plane flying over our house, the sounds within the sounds as you tap on things. When I finally allowed myself to slow down and notice things as you do, I realized a new peace, and I realized living in the moment. And, most importantly, I discovered a foothold to building a relationship with you.
Patience. We are both impatient. But your struggle with patience is largely because the world bothers your senses and because you struggle to communicate your needs and ideas. Your communication is becoming more clear to me, partly because I am learning to look at the world from your point of view and read your subtle nonverbal signs, and partly because you are using more words. Despite all the frustration, your patience is expanding as you mature and this inspires me to be a more patient person.
Compassion. Because of you I am a more compassionate person. I have more forgiveness and flexibility with you, with myself, and with others in the community. When I interact with the cashier in the grocery store who reminds me of you, I don’t see her abruptness and harsh tone as rude. I see a person who is communicating in the best way she knows how, and I take the words literally so that we can meaningfully communicate. I have you to thank for this unique understanding of others like yourself.
Beth, because of you and your autism, you have given me the gift of perspective and have changed my view of the world. Thank you, my sweet little girl, for teaching me so many wonderful life lessons.
Tammy is a scientist by training, stay at home autism mom by practice. She started her blog Fumbling Thru Autism to document her experiences and practical solutions that evolve while she parents and homeschools her daughter Beth*. She believes the best way to help Beth is through careful observation and innovative problem solving. She primarily uses a Floortime approach when she teaches and plays with Beth, but she also incorporates a bag of tricks she has learned from other therapies (speech, behavioral, music, and occupational therapies).
*Beth is a pseudonym for privacy purposes
Photo credit: Piera Lotito
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