I will never forget February 2014.
G-Dad and I were standing on the grounds of a certain school in the northern suburbs of Cape Town. This school was for autistic children and it was during the time we were looking at different options for schools for Gabriel (as he was battling at his Montessori school). We were being shown around, looking at the small classes, first. For children who were 'lower' on the spectrum, one-on-one ABA therapy was provided.
We were shown to another section of the school. This section had small cubicles. And I mean small. Each cubicle was sealed off with a door, had a small desk inside with the tutor sitting on the one side of it and the student sitting on the other side. It was explained that this was to limit distractions and outside sensory interference.
This particular cubicle had a 15 year old boy sitting in it, staring into space while the tutor desperately tried to get him to look at the colour cards she had layed out on the table. I observed him and noticed something interesting.
He was smiling.
I immediately sensed that he found this all very comical and exceptionally boring. He just battled to communicate this.
After we left this torture of a facility (sorry, but that's how I feel about it) we decided to never enroll Gabriel there. Yet, something lingered with me for a long time, marinating within my mind.
The smiling. The look of amusement on this particular student's face.
It has been a common belief amongst many individuals (including some professionals) that autistic individuals are not competent. That they need to be trained like dogs, basically, to function in this world.
How very wrong those people are.
I attended a lecture last year, hosted by several autistic adults. They confirmed my suspicions and said something that everyone should always remember.
Always presume competence.
I want you to imagine the following for me:
Imagine you have just been to the dentist and received several dental fillings (awful, I know!). Imagine heading to the store to get some ice water to relieve the dry mouth you now have. Now imagine trying to tell the cashier something, as you prepare to pay, only to babble out incoherent vowels accompanied by some drool, running down your chin.
Now imagine your fingers don't work the way you want them to. You try to enter your pin code on the cashier's machine, to complete payment, only to have your fingers splay out, uncontrollably. And they look at you with a telling look. That look that they think you are incompetent or slow. And they begin to speak to you very slowly, using short, simple words, thinking you will understand them better. Or they ask you if you are listening to them or understand them simply because you are not looking them in the eye while they speak, because you actually find it easier to listen without looking them in the eye.
How would you feel?
Frustrated? Angry? Helpless? Sad?
What about - trapped?
I know it would make me want to bang my head. Or throw something.
And this notion of 'high vs low' on the spectrum should be discarded. It should be replaced with 'different physical challenges'. Some autistic individuals process information slower, some faster. Some are exceptionally sensitive to sound, whereas some seek out sound. Some autistic individuals speak very eloquently and some babble like new born babies.
Does this mean they are intellectually challenged? No. It means we need to have more patience and understanding. Understanding that there are physical challenges and, while bearing those in mind, an individual with a mind intact.
Don't get me wrong - I know of some individuals, autistic or not, who do suffer from brain damage.
But appearances can be very deceiving.
Rip away that book cover.
Remember that a differently wrapped gift box is just that - different, not less.
ALWAYS PRESUME COMPETENCE.