A parent asks: I have a four-year-old son with high-functioning autism. He has speech delay but is very bright and tests academically above his age. We live in a large city and are seeking all the help we can, including ABA. I have read your books about autism and your amazing journey. I’m glad to know your son is going to college.
But at this point I don’t know what to expect from my son. I keep on reading on the internet that despite all the support from parents and even after obtaining a college degree, these kids cannot become independent adults because of their social deficits. I wanted to ask you if there’s any hope for us in this darkest time of our life, as you must have known many people in autism community.
Ellen answers: You’re reading the wrong websites. Stop at once. Then take a deep breath, and let your common sense take over. How can any website that makes such a sweeping generalization be credible? The idea that an entire population of “these kids” cannot, over the period of their entire childhoods, learn social skills is statistically impossible, isn’t it? You need only look to the example of thousands (probably millions) of adults with autism who are in the workplace today, succeeding in every arena you can think of, from science to education to the arts, athletics, politics, and entertainment. They’re all over the internet too. The degree to which a child with autism learns social skills is variable, of course, and based on many factors, including consistent teaching in a manner meaningful to the child, opportunity to practice the skills in both contrived and practical settings, the child’s own motivation, the parents’ belief system. I note that you did not even mention your son’s social abilities in your message. If he is functioning socially at all, is receptive to instruction (with much patient repetition) and is making progress (however small the increment), then he is doing all that can be reasonably expected of a small person with only a handful of years of life experience, coping daily with challenges most kids don’t have to face.
At four years old, 80% of your son’s childhood is still ahead of him. He’s bright, is receiving services, has supportive parents determined to do all they can for him; you live in a large city with good resources. If that isn’t reason to hope, what is? In the 5,000 days between now and the time he turns 18—yes, 5,000 days—he will learn and grow and mature and come into his own, and growing right alongside him, every day, will be advances in medicine and education, and societal awareness of how individuals with autism can claim their rightful places in the community.
It’s understandable that you feel anxious about not knowing the extent of your child’s future capabilities. But no parent knows this at age four, or six, or even sixteen. You can know one thing with great certainty: your child is capable of more than he’s doing today, and this is a lifelong continuum. No one, absolutely no one, can predict how far your child can go, especially not some plain-vanilla website attempting to define children with autism as a monolithic block. Tune out the media hype and horror and focus on what’s real for your child and your family.
My November 2013 newsletter column “Autism Mad-Libs: How to Fill in the Blanks” addresses your feelings of hopelessness and anxiety.