Words are powerful. They hurt or heal. They tear down or build up.
As part of Autism Awareness Month, I want to focus on ten words that are not about what you say, but about what you can do to make awareness personal and meaningful in the life of a child.
If you know a child or teenager with Autism, you CAN do more than simply be aware. You can put into practice these ten words:
1. Wait. It may take longer than you like for someone with autism to answer a question, tie a shoe lace, complete a chore. By waiting patiently, you tell that child that they can trust you: that you will not rush them, make impatient noises or expect them to do what they cannot.
2. Listen. If someone with Autism has something to say, listen. Hang on every word. You can’t even imagine how difficult it is for her to process her thoughts into speech. By listening patiently, you make her efforts worthwhile. You encourage her to keep communicating.
3. Try. If you don’t understand, try. Expand your heart and your mind. Don’t judge a meltdown the way you would with any child. Don’t critique poor language skills or poor eye contact. Leave the correction and teaching to the parents and teachers. You can be the sympathetic one, the patient one. The one who tries.
4. Mentor. If you have family friends or relatives with kids on the spectrum, they want your help. They need it – even when they don’t ask. Just like typical children, kids with Autism often respond better to someone who is not a parent. So if he can’t ride a bike, you (as a neighbor, uncle, cousin or friend) might be the one who can help him learn – yes, even better than his parents! He might just try harder with you. Take her out for ice cream. Ask Mom and Dad if you can take him fishing or to a baseball game. Take her to the park to fly a kite, shoot a basketball or blow bubbles. Go race cars together or play mini golf. Yes, there are special considerations. You’ll need to develop trust first, and you might even have to convince over-protective parents that you can handle it. But I guarantee you this: that child’s parents will be grateful for your interest – your desire to be involved in her life. They’ll appreciate the helping hand. And that child will never forget you either.
5. Host. Sometimes, people resist having a kid with Autism over for a sleepover, a family with kids on the spectrum over for dinner. There can be dietary issues, meltdowns, fears, drama. If the Autism is severe, you might just feel overwhelmed. Be a host anyway. Talk to Mom and Dad ahead of time. Keep things simple and small. Be flexible and willing to go with the flow if things change. Families on the spectrum can feel so isolated: by having them over for dinner or asking them to join you at a Saturday afternoon picnic, you help them know they are not alone.
6. Pray. Ask for God’s blessings on someone with Autism. Every day. Please. Some of these kids struggle with anxiety like you wouldn’t believe. Some have never made a friend. Not ever. Some have parents who fight about how to deal with Autism – how to pay for therapies, when to start, when to stop. Some can’t sleep. Some hear every noise and worry. Some have such strong empathy, they become almost numb from the pain they feel all around them. Pray that God will watch over them, protect them. Pray they will see Him with clear eyes, as the ever-present, comforting source of absolute GOOD in their lives.
7. Appreciate. Instead of looking for what is “normal” in a child with Autism, appreciate them for who they really are. She is incredibly honest. He is sincere. Her ability to focus makes her a wiz at math. His obsession with cleanliness means his bathroom is always spotless. They are – each and every one – incredibly brave and worthy of our admiration.
8. Participate. Kids on the spectrum often have very particular, focused interests. They might be the kinds of things many kids love: sports, video games, dirt bikes, movies. Or they might be more peculiar: water fountains, power poles, bugs, maps. Whatever it is – show an interest. Get involved. Drive out to the edge of town to show him the tallest power pole you can find. Dig in the dirt with him and help him find bugs. Play pirates. Play chess. Draw maps. Every minute you spend in that child’s world demonstrates how much you care for her.
9. Love. I’m not talking about how you feel about him – I hope those feelings are warm and caring. But this love is a verb. It’s about what you DO. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not rude. It does not brag. It does not get jealous. It is not arrogant. Love doesn’t insist on getting its own way and it is not irritable or resentful. Love is truthful, hopeful, strong, persistent and courageous. Practice these things with a child on the spectrum, and you have modeled the kind of adult they will grow up to be.
10. Give. If you want to make a contribution to an Autism charity, or run in a race, that’s great. I am so grateful to you. But I’m talking about more personal giving. I have two friends who, seeing my son’s great love for retro video games, brought him their old collections. You’ve never seen a child so happy – and I’ve rarely been so grateful. I’m sure both these men could have sold their games and systems and made a nice little bit of pocket money. Instead, they gave. Do you know someone on the spectrum who loves photography? Sewing? Golf? History? Look around you: you might have a great old camera, a vintage sewing machine, clubs you never swing, or stacks of National Geographic just taking up space in your basement. How about a new puzzle for the girl who can’t build them fast enough? A ream of white paper for the boy who never stops drawing? A small, thoughtful gift from you can make a huge difference in a child’s life.
So let Autism Awareness Month be just the beginning. Let awareness mean more than a list of facts that you know – let it become a call to action. If you involve yourself in one of these precious lives, you will never, ever regret it. I promise.