The daily challenges of raising a child on the autistic spectrum can be so all-consuming that parents often have little time or energy left to think about anything – let alone whether their child has special talents that are being obscured by their more obvious symptoms. However, it’s critical to the self-esteem of each child on the spectrum (and the well-being of their family) to discover and nurture EVERY child’s gifts and passions.
Does your child love numbers, video games, music, art, sports or cooking? Frequently kids with autism present as having very little interest in anything, or else they exhibit too MUCH interest in unproductive or embarrassing activities. But don’t let that discourage you. My daughter Samantha had very narrow and repetitive interests as a young child. Most of the so-called “autism experts” I consulted 20 years ago could never have predicted that Samantha would graduate from Pace University (cum laude!) and star in a film at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. Even as I write these words, I still find them hard to believe….
Yet I never gave up believing in Samantha. Early on, I realized that my daughter’s fierce determination was a gift –despite the difficulty of living with her often-willful behaviors. Ultimately, I recognized that the best way to empower my child on the spectrum was to redirect her fiery energy toward positive, meaningful goals.
Balancing Challenges and Strengths
In addition to treating children on the spectrum with speech therapy, occupational therapy and ABA, parents should gradually expose their kids with autism to activities that give them joy. If your child loves the water, make sure he/she learns to swim—first for safety and fun. Later, if it turns out your child truly enjoys swimming and starts to excel, you may find (or form) a swim team. While my daughter never joined a formal swim team, she took tremendous pride in winning every pool race against her neurotypical twin brother. Being a superior swimmer helped raise Samantha’s self-esteem. She was (understandably) very jealous of her twin for excelling with apparent ease both socially and academically, while she had few friends and struggled to complete her homework. Nevertheless—but perhaps most importantly—my daughter realized that giving 110% effort could sometimes yield unexpected success. Reminding children with autism of their earlier victories and successes can often motivate them to work harder and persevere even in areas that are more challenging.
Silver Linings: Converting Negative Habits into Positive Behavior
When Samantha was a child, she often used her hands in inappropriate ways: touching herself in public, tearing wrapping paper into ever smaller pieces, ripping her fingernails and cuticles, and tying strings (or my pocket book straps) into endless knots. Obviously, my daughter’s habits expressed her extreme, nearly uncontrollable anxiety. Transitioning Samantha into more productive and socially acceptable ways of dealing with anxiety was difficult and slow, but well worth the effort. During long years of therapy, with some trial and error, Samantha learned substitute behaviors to keep her hands occupied. Instead of tying endless knots, she began to knit, crochet, do needlepoint and other arts and crafts. Everywhere we went, Samantha’s hands were busy with a project: knitting a scarf, creating a lanyard bracelet, sewing a needlepoint pillow. As time went on, my daughter enjoyed shopping for colorful yarn, mostly in shades of green, her favorite color. She took great pride in knitting a scarf for her brother and crocheting a blanket for Mom and Dad’s king size bed (a long project with a lovely result)! In addition, Samantha began to enjoy the social component of teaching other little girls how to knit or crochet; these shared activities provided an easy, fun alternative to struggling with extended conversation.
Enlisting Teachers and Camp Counselors to Unearth Talent
There’s a strong tendency to breathe a sigh of relief each day that a child on the spectrum stays on task, avoids a major meltdown and makes incremental progress socially and academically. But parents shouldn’t stop there. Make a point of chatting with your child’s art, gym, and music teachers at school. Teachers should be happy and proud to discuss your child’s interest and success in their classes. When Samantha was seven, her music teacher of two years told us she was a fearless singer with perfect pitch. The first time she stood up during a school assembly and sang “Tomorrow” from Annie, she received a standing ovation. Our family members also began to notice that she easily picked up the foreign accents of teachers, babysitters, counselors and tour guides. Her uncanny ability to mimic accents and speech patterns provided humor and unexpected entertainment for everyone. At school and at camp, Samantha began to audition for every play and was particularly proud of her solo singing performances.
Exposure to the Arts – Benefits of Theater
While most kids (on or off the spectrum) are NOT miniature Katharine Hepburns or Humphrey Bogarts, participation in theater can be very beneficial. First, kids on the spectrum learn best from “hands on” experiences. Dressing up and playing different characters can be a fun, concrete way to see the world from another person’s perspective and learn empathy. Whether the character is similar to or completely different from the child doesn’t matter. What’s important is for the child with autism to slowly start to see the world in gray, instead of black and white. Each character in a play expresses a different point of view, and points of view are subject to change as a narrative unfolds. In addition, taking on the role of a character requires social interaction and cooperation with other actors and crew members. Friendships can naturally evolve from working together toward a common goal. While working backstage as a crew member, Samantha met her first best friend. I am happy to report that 12 years later they are still close, not only enjoying their long friendship, but also participating in a larger community of performers and theater fans.
Marguerite Elisofon and I’m the author of a memoir called My Picture Perfect Family: What Happens When One Twin Has Autism, which explores my family’s journey raising my daughter, Samantha, who is on the autistic spectrum. http://www.margueriteelisofon.com/
My daughter, Samantha, is starring in a groundbreaking new feature film that has been selected to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend. The film is called, Keep the Change, and it features a New York love story between two young adults on the autistic spectrum. What makes the film so unique is that the actors portraying characters with autism are themselves on the spectrum, making Keep the Change the first film of its kind. This movie represents a great opportunity—not only for Samantha and the other actors in the film—but for all young adults on the spectrum who have big dreams! You can learn more about Samantha on her website.