The first weekend of the new millennium found me in a hairdresser’s chair in front of a stylist I didn’t know. When she was done, my hair swung in a decidedly post-modern arc, and I was a redhead. The person returning my gaze in the mirror looked a bit familiar, like a relative you don’t see very often. I liked this out-of-character version of me. I wanted to go to lunch with her, peek into her closet. I bet her shoes were more hip than mine.

I didn’t stick with the look beyond the time it took to grow out and fade out, but I enjoyed that other me for the couple of months she was around. I credit the stylist, whose casual response was just perfect:

“It’s all about whether you’re willing to see yourself a little differently.”

The hairdresser didn’t know it, but she had uttered a weighty truth about nurturing a child with autism. One of Bryce’s early classmates was a lad with little language who liked to gaze at something – a tree, a toy – then pull the corner of his eye sideways so only a slit remained. Then he would tip his head, this way, that way. Though he couldn’t say so,  he obviously wanted to see things differently. His mother joined him in it one day, then his para. Then we all did. To see the same object from many different perspectives was more interesting than we had ever imagined.

Seeing things differently doesn’t come naturally to many adults. The tourism board in my state once ran an ad campaign with the slogan, “Things look different here.” It wasn’t a resounding success because, well, some people aren’t willing to see things differently. The slogan got ridiculed into “Things smell different here” and allusions to Martian landscapes.

Years ago, our occupational therapist designed a sensory-centric special education classroom. The design, focused largely on helping the children see the world from different physical perspectives, included a loft. I wondered how the teacher would keep the kids safe, especially the ones tending toward careless behavior. But the kids found this space so attractive, they were willing to abide by a strict set of safety rules in order to be allowed to use it. Not only was the breaching of these rules almost non-existent, the loft was so inviting that it opened the door to socialization for children who previously had little interest in others. They gathered there to interact, and they were more willing to actively listen to each other and to instruction from the teacher. Things did look different there.

So much of our lives are spent in same-plane, ground level pursuits; we are almost always in contact with a floor. Our first plane ride is thrilling because everything looks so different from up there. Ditto for scuba diving, or even just opening your eyes underwater. I read of a preschool that offered students a fascinating variation on perspective—they placed a large non-breakable mirror outside during playtime. The children “walked on the sky.”

Children with autism experience the world differently. But many “typical” folk aren’t listening, too busy wishing these kids were “normal.” The prime example of this is the rigidity with which many of children with autism, mine included, adhere to their routines, food preferences, choice of activities. I learned very early on that I could be exasperated, infuriated or worn down by it, or I could see it a different way. Frequently, I was amazed to see that, truly, Bryce’s perspective was sound, and the rest of the world could benefit from doing things his way. A fondly remembered example of this is how we celebrated his birthdays. The cacophonic play zones, arcades and bowling alleys popular in his day were out of the question. We were “forced” to celebrate birthdays at home, in the backyard, and we found that virtually everyone was utterly delighted to revive this type of celebration. The adults too wanted in on the bounce house, the super-soaker fight, the tug o’ war, the popcorn in the little movie-theater bags, frosting their own cupcakes. And because Bryce had no use for conventional birthday cakes, each year was an exercise in how to do the blow-out-the candle thing differently. Ever see a watermelon with candles? A Tootsie Roll log cabin with a candle in the chimney?

Adults can begin to see autism differently by reframing the challenges our children present us. Is she standoffish—or able to entertain herself and work well independently? Is he reckless—or adventuresome and willing to try new experiences? Is she obsessively neat, or does she have outstanding organizational skills? Does he pester you with endless questions, or is he curious about his world, tenacious and persistent?

From my children I have learned a lifetime’s worth of wisdom about seeing things differently. But there will always be times when it is incumbent upon us as adults to help our children see things differently too. In the classroom with the loft, one boy  was not yet able to see his space differently. When the teacher asked the children to draw what their ideal classroom might look like, many included bikes, candy, toys, tree houses. This child drew a heavy, dark door. “Don’t open my door,” read the caption.

Clearly, our work is cut out for us. Is your door open?


© 2013 Ellen Notbohm



3 Responses to “Life with autism: “It’s all about whether you’re willing to see yourself a little differently.””

  1. Amy says:

    I just wanted to say thank you. You have such wisdom, and such an eloquent way of writing. Every time I read one of your articles I start to cry your words ring so true. Thank you for writing and sharing so that we may too share with family and friends things that are sometimes not so easy to express or share, or even put into words sometimes.

  2. Karen Schuh says:

    Thank you for this insightful article. My 20 year old son has Aspergers, and was diagnosed at age 13. It’s been difficult to see past the autistic tendencies sometimes, and even for him to see his “differences” as positive. He is very talented artistically, which he doesn’t easily accept. But I keep trying to gently remind him of his talents. Seeing things differently is certainly a description that fits my son, but I can see I need to continue to try and see differently as he sees and celebrate his gifts.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing, Ellen.

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