As a mother of a child on the spectrum, I’m not afraid or scared of autism itself. Instead, I’m afraid of those who don’t understand what autism is. I’m fearful of the neurotypical individuals who don’t have perspective or an open-mind for those with an aneurotypical mind. For me, I believe perspective is the key to so much in life. It helps me to better understand when a colleague is upset with a decision or policy or why my daughter is so passionate about her rock collection. Perspective gives me pause and helps me to make better decisions and choices. It is possible to think of others needs – and it is also possible for an aneurotypical person to do so.
Dr. Temple Grandin, renowned best-selling author, speaker, and advocate for people with autism, writes,
Perspective-taking: the ability to ‘put ourselves in another person’s shoes’; to understand that other people can have various viewpoints emotions, and responses from our own. At an even more basic level is acknowledging that people exist and that they are sources of information to help us make sense of the world” (Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships 2016).
Dr. Grandin writes this for her peers who also struggle to build social connections in our very social world. Dr. Grandin’s words resonate with me because she too firmly believes that aneurotypical individuals must learn these social norms and graces. It is paramount that a person be able to hold down a job, present or share an idea, and resolve a conflict. These are just some of the many moving parts of what is called life. And this is all connected to perspective-taking.
Let me explain …
Some aneurotypical individuals present themselves as knowing everything, having a strong sense of fairness, and showing little care for what others may think or feel. I’m not debunking any of this. In fact, this is true for a lot of our children on the spectrum because they are learning how to interact in a social world and how to take in others’ perspectives. As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, this is often perceived as rude, or disrespectful, or even defiant.
As an educator, I’ve observed some of my ASD students at school make poor social choices with their neurotypical peers. These choices include telling all the neurotypical male students at the lunch table that he gets to be first in line for lunch, because he is the most hungry. This statement, clearly, doesn’t account for the 10 other hungry bellies at the table. This is perceived by his peers as rude, and, yes, disrespectful.
Of course, neurotypical boys sometimes don’t respond with grace and perspective to such comments. And, yes, they are also learning how to interact in our world. And while our children on the spectrum learn how to interact and live in our social world, it is the responsibility of all communities to engage in real conversations about perspective and empathy.
It may be difficult to explain to middle school students that some of our students don’t respond the same way as others. It may be challenging to explain the way an aneurotypical student thinks. However, it is possible to begin the conversation.
I watched the beginning of this conversation begin one day. I admire the teacher who had the courage to walk that tight-rope. The conversation opened with the question – are we all the same? The obvious answer, was, and still is, no. And the conversation continued with some stems such as these: We don’t all think the same either. Isn’t okay that some of your peers do things a little differently. This makes life interesting, right? What if the whole world was filled with all you – every person was just like you? And, without labeling the student as “autistic,” the teacher started a critical conversation with the student that will hopefully guide his thinking as he moves forward in life.
This is not the only place where the work of perspective-taking and empathy need to occur. It is also the responsibility of every parent with a child on the spectrum to teach their children about these social norms. Some of the rules for our children truly need to be black and white. It is okay to say things like: You may not say that outside of our home. Say “thank you,” when the server brings your water. Talk with a quiet voice when inside a room. Look around the room before you spin your body – so you don’t bump into someone. I liken this to remembering my address and telephone number as a child. It was something that I had to know. These are things that need to be committed to memory – because if a child on the spectrum is to grow into a successful, thriving adult with a good-paying and rewarding job, then that child must learn at a young age how to interact in our social world.
It is okay to say things like: You may not say that outside of our home. Say “thank you,” when the server brings your water. Talk with a quiet voice when inside a room. Look around the room before you spin your body – so you don’t bump into someone.
But, it can’t stop there. As a society at large, we need to remember that those on the spectrum often think in pictures and live for doing something in the moment – and not for making strong, social connections with others (Grandin 2016). Those who live neurotypical lives, are happy to engage in the social world and all that comes with it. However, it doesn’t make any one person less of a person. It makes them unique.
I ask that we all remember that it is possible to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. We may not like how they fit – and that is what gives us perspective. So, don’t be afraid to nurture your own perspective-taking and to also grow your ASD child’s perspective-taking. I promise – you and your child are worth it.
Grandin Dr. Temple. Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships. Arlington: Future Horizons, Inc, 2016.