4 Ways to Help Your Autistic Kid Show His Talents to the World

New Tom Clarinet
New Tom Clarinet. New Tom Clarinet

Let's say that, like me, you have a kid with autism who's neither severely disabled nor a prodigy. He's just, y'know, this kid with autism who has his strengths and weaknesses.

One day, you discover that he's really pretty good at something -- computer programming, or drawing, or music, or acting, or 3-D modeling, or basketball. Maybe he sang in the shower, or played and sang a song by ear, or acted out a scene from a movie, or built a really cool Lego Mindstorms robot.

Now, just to be clear: he's not a genius or a savant. He's not going to wow Carnegie Hall or amaze Bill Gates. But the fact is that he's as good as (or even better than) typical kids his own age. He's certainly good enough to be part of a typical community or school. He's got real skills.

There's just one problem: he's autistic. And that means... he may not process spoken language quickly enough to keep up with a typical team, show, or group... he may not pick up on the rules of a particular type of program or activity unless he receives consistent, direct instruction... he may blurt out when it's in appropriate, stim when it's not cool, or get angry at the wrong moment. He might ask the wrong questions, give the wrong answers, or find it impossible to make friends.

You ask about inclusion in your child's area of strength, and you're told "We have a special needs program he could join -- let me give you a pamphlet." But you know he's got enough talent, ability, and interest to do his thing at age level with typical peers. And you also know that playing basketball in the special needs league, or singing with the special needs choir, while it may be fun, is not going to help him integrate into real-world activities. He'll be excluded from all the wonderful field trips, competitions, scholarship opportunities and opportunities that typical kids enjoy.

Yes, it's true that he has the "right" to receive appropriate support so that he can be included in the "general curriculum." But that "right" doesn't usually extend to providing a music-savvy support person to be sure he's put the right music on the music stand at the right moment...  or a 1:1 baseball coach who can cue him as to when he's up at bat and when it's time to go onto the field... or a choral coach who can ensure he's singing the right part at the right time. And if he's in a community program, like Little League, he has no rights to any supports at all.

So what do you do? Here are four ways to make inclusion a reality -- for your kid and/or for others.

  • Become your kid's support staff. No one will tell you "no, your kid can't join the team" if you're going to be on the spot, taking responsibility for his needs and ensuring that he's where he needs to be and ready to go.
  • Hire a support person whom you've trained. Yes, you can hire and train a high school or college student to go along with your child to band practice, team practice, rehearsals, etc., and ensure that your child has the support he needs to succeed.
  • Find a champion. Let's say your child (like mine) is pretty darned good at music. We signed him up for band, and supported him ourselves when he was very young. Soon, the band teachers got to know him. They noticed that he had some talent. After a while, they were willing to tell the IEP Team "Tom is welcome in band -- he does a great job." Today, one of those teachers runs the town band, and Tom is included (with support).
  • Build an inclusive program. This is a big mouthful to bite off, but if you're dedicated to a particular type of activity in which your child has a particular talent, this may be a terrific way to give back while also serving your child's particular needs. For example -- start up an inclusive art class, create an inclusive choir, or head up an inclusive scout troop.  The possibilities are endless!
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