[guestpost]This is a guest post by my middle child, Austin.[ref]Adapted from Austin Dane’s blog, “How to Talk to Individuals with Autism,” posted September 2, 2016, https://www.theodysseyonline.com/siblings-with-autism. Copyright © 2016 by Austin Dane, 2016. Used by permission.[/ref] Austin is incredibly insightful, gifted, and hilarious; but his strongest quality is a tender heart for those who are often rejected. You see, Austin’s younger brother, Jonathan, has many disabilities; autism is one of them. Raising relatively strong kids with high moral values requires commitment. It’s a massive, sometimes monstrous responsibility! Add a child with disabilities to the mix, and you’ll find yourself blasting into prayer rooms fairly frequently. My kids are now young adults. By God’s mercy and miraculous involvement, they are each amazing. Most likely, Jon will never understand the written word; but like most of us, he always understands acceptance and rejection. Whether verbal or not, love and acceptance are longings we all carry. Therefore, this post can be useful to us all. Please, please read on. —Colleen[/guestpost]
It happened at a restaurant called Seven 47 on Campus Corner in Norman, Oklahoma. I was introducing my mom, dad, and younger brother to my InterVarsity chapter leaders, Chris and Laurie, people whom I greatly respect.
About 15 minutes into the dinner, as Chris was talking, my brother, Jon, who is subject to a complex case of autism, pointed directly at Chris and blurted out,
You’re Bob the Builder!
A pause swept across the table.
I am Bob the Builder! You’re right!
And a flurry of laughter and smiles ensued. I could see Jon being included, loved, and accepted in our conversation.
Communicating with individuals with autism is, frankly, intimidating at times. It often provides a hard-to-comprehend atmosphere because there can be so much uncertainty. This is totally normal, even to families and friends who have grown up being intertwined with autism.
Chris was able to effectively communicate with my younger brother because he validated his silly statement and encouraged his goofy imagination.
Every case of autism is unique, and results or reactions from conversations usually vary, but using the method called VALID, you and I can lovingly and carefully immerse ourselves into their world.
Validation is a cornerstone of communication. Validation provides support for actions and ensures that the person you’re communicating with feels acknowledged and accepted.
The apostle Paul in Acts 17:23 provided a masterful example of this. Reading the landscape of Athens—the idols, the philosophers, and discussion in the public square—he addressed Athenian listeners with their own culture.
The National Autistic Society advises that in order to communicate effectively with people who have autism, we observe the way they communicate. If they don’t use any sound or speech, try using gestures rather than talking to them. They may use some of the following to communicate:
- Taking your hand to the object they want
- Looking at the object they want
- Using pictures
- Echolalia (the repetition of other people’s words)
Chris understood that being called Bob the Builder was not important—it was Jon’s unique way of trying to be included. The way Chris replied with enthusiasm validated Jon by using Jon’s communication style.
For a specific definition, I’m going to use the biological definition of acclimate:
To respond physiologically or behaviorally to a change in a single environmental factor.[ref]English Oxford Living Dictionaries, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/acclimate, accessed September 27, 2016. [/ref]
Acclimating is taking on the responsibility of reacting appropriately toward any situation.
For individuals with autism, an environment might be terribly stressful due to . . .
- Over- or under-sensory stimulation
- Fluctuating variations of environmental factors
- Chemical imbalances in the body that can produce strong reactions
For anyone communicating with individuals with autism, it’s important to acclimate—adapt—to what their surroundings might be like.
Love is the backbone of authentic acceptance. Love showed through when Chris and Laurie didn’t react with offense, questioning, or brushing off the comment as though it didn’t exist. Love is why Johann Wolfgang von Goethe says,
[It] does not dominate; it cultivates.
David Wilkerson’s quote adds to the notion of cultivating by saying,
Love is not only something you feel, it is something you do.
Communicating with love is the essence of loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:39).
When love is at the forefront of intentions, it permeates any conversation or communication we have with others . . . with or without autism.
Imagination is a sacred component in any form of creativity; this essentially means that introducing creativity in the form of imagination or play can be helpful in aiding communication.
In a study titled “Interventions to Improve Communications,” author Rhea Paul, PhD, Yale Child Study Center, researched methods of intervening in the early stages of development for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in hopes of strengthening communication.
In an additional note in the study, Paul writes about how crucial peer interactions are:
An additional important goal of communication intervention for children with ASD is to provide supports that allow these children to engage in peer interactions, including pretend play, games, and conversations. Some of the naturalistic approaches discussed already, such as script-fading and video-modeling, go some distance to addressing this issue. (Study found here.)[ref]Rhea Paul, “Interventions to Improve Communication,” HHS author manuscript, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, © 2008 Elsevier Inc. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2635569, accessed September 28, 2016.[/ref]
Have you ever noticed how easily Jesus taught theology by weaving in parables from mundane elements of life? How welcoming He was with children? Jesus fully employed imagination to communicate and connect with His listeners.
We can do the same. This includes going along with silly names or games, contributing to out-of-the-blue phrases or stories with a childlike heart, and not being ashamed of connecting with those who may be different.
At the end of conversations with individuals with autism, reflect on what you said that they responded to well and what you said that either caused greater distance or negative emotion.
It is always difficult to gauge because, again, each person with autism is unique. Dispose of negative thoughts or implications from the prior engagement, and apply what has been learned to the next opportunity.
By embracing the VALID model, communicating with individuals with autism will shift from merely tolerating them; it may even evolve into an unexpected relationship.
Communication becomes easier as validation becomes a cornerstone, conversation will be more lighthearted when love is the motivation—and others who fear communication with individuals with autism will see the model you portray.
The world so often labels people with autism as useless, alienating them from what could be a transforming relationship for us all. Let’s demonstrate a VALID way to better communication with this wonderful and imaginative group of individuals.
Now It’s Your Turn
Perhaps you have never evaluated your communication style with others—those with or without autism. I hope you will reflect on Christ’s model for us all and consider how you relate to others. What part is most difficult for you? Let me hear from you today.
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Read more of Austin Dane’s posts on a site titled The Odyssey.