Issue No. 36, January 2012
Who’s to say who’s an expert?
~ Paul Newman
Experts One and All
Ever see the 1980 spoof Airplane!? Even if you haven’t, you may be familiar with Leslie Nielsen’s famous line. In response to the pilot’s incredulous gasp of “Surely you can’t be serious!” Nielsen deadpans, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” Yeah, it’s corny, but I laugh every time. I also think of that line sans the chuckle every time someone tries to label me as “a mother and an autism expert.” My response is always that I am a mother, yes. But don’t call me an autism expert. And I am serious.
Bryce’s struggles with language left me deeply attuned to the often careless generality of the way we use words in contemporary society, and it often disturbs me. In this column, we’ve put words like tragedy, normal, suffering and perfect under the microscope and found their usage deserving of reconsideration. Today’s word is “expert.” Why, in a world that wants to tag me as an expert, do I resist it? Because overuse of a word can render it nearly meaningless. In our short-cut, extreme-adjective communication culture, I’ve come to believe there may be no such thing as an autism expert. Either that, or the opposite—that true expertise lies only in the aggregate wisdom of the entire autism community, if only we would see it that way.
Some years ago, I spoke at a conference where, as usual, I sprinkled my presentation with personal experiences. In exploring how there can be many factors that may trigger negative behavior in our children, I described how my son’s meltdowns faded dramatically when we eliminated food dyes and preservatives from his diet. Afterward, a doctor objected strenuously to my “presenting suggestions to parents and grandparents in a way that implies that something that is anecdotal is tried and true.” My experiences (“some anecdotes”) did not qualify as tried and true because the outcomes had not been substantiated by research or supported by science.
This bewildered me. There wasn’t a soul in the room who didn’t know that I was speaking as a parent, not a scientist. I share my parental experiences because the parent of a child with autism, particularly one in meltdown, is a 24/7 on-call first responder in need of tactics that work for a specific child, in real time, irrespective of whether science or academia has been able to measure it--yet. We develop the proficiency, stamina, inventiveness and resilience needed to navigate both the onslaught and the backwash of the storms our child’s autism tosses our way. Humankind’s most momentous discoveries often begin with a single instance or observation, and a human mind curious enough to follow it up. Clinicians and professionals—who we dearly appreciate and do not want to be without—see many children with autism, but most have never lived with one. Have never lived the gritty, giddy, predictable unpredictability of it, the chronic bone-weariness and crushing desperation that come at 8:00 pm when your child is engaged in his fourth full-strength meltdown of the day (and the twentieth that week). When I was at that point, I did not care whether the answer came from science, anecdote, divine intervention or voodoo. The science was the science of Whatever Worked to Make Us Healthy and Safe. In the instance of food dyes and my son, a trial elimination diet was a no-risk, non-invasive, low-cost tactic. It worked for my particular child. Less than four years after my anecdotal talk, the Food and Drug Administration in the US and the British Food Standards Agency had acknowledged that food dyes spark hyperactive or aggressive behavior in some children.
That conversation on anecdote-vs.-science crystallized my thinking on what constitutes an autism expert. Those thoughts fell, natural as rain, into a seven-tiered pyramid that reflected the hour-by-hour amount of face time racked up by the key players in our children’s lives. Looking at the number of hours of interaction at the various levels, it seemed to me that expertise could not be based on professional training alone nor on quantity of interaction alone, but that skill, knowledge, tactical thinking and resourcefulness are required of adults in every environment our child inhabits. The pyramid looks like this (tweak for your child or student):
Doctor: 1 – 10 hour per year
In my pyramid, either everyone’s an expert or no one’s an expert. Where the goal is seeing our child into healthy, happy, productive, responsible adulthood, we need all layers working in concert toward that common goal. I have always stressed that we must view our child with autism as a whole person, not a bucket of broken pieces parted out. The same standard should apply to our definition of an autism expert. Recognizing the value and the necessity of the unique perspective from each layer of the pyramid forms a potent collective expertise that no single component can begin to touch. True experts know that their own expertise, however vast, is still limited, and that only in compound with other experts does the application of that expertise reach its full potential. Our pediatric dentist told me, “I’ve learned more from moms in my practice than I ever did in dental school.” I’ve seen young teachers thrilled and awed by what they’ve learned from seasoned paraeducators and volunteers, and from babysitters/caregivers and siblings. Our children have no use for selective labels like “expert”; their only criterion is, does this person make my life more comfortable, more enjoyable, more comprehensible, more interesting?
The opening pages of Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew make the argument that embracing a model of circular learning must be the starting point for teaching the child with autism. S/he tells us:
Learning flows in all directions, not only from you as the teacher to me as the student, but from student to teacher, from student to student, and from teacher to teacher. This circle of learning is what makes it work for all of us. . . You have as much to learn from me as I do from you.
Substitute “expertise” for “learning” in the passage above, and you’ll understand why I find it more accurate and productive to present myself as a teacher-learner than as an expert. I’m going to decline any tag that suggests in even the slightest way that I have reached some arbitrary pinnacle of knowledge and needn’t strive to learn more and to be open to new information from whatever expected or unexpected source it may spring. An expert knows all the answers, the old saying goes, but only if you ask the right questions.
So let’s put away the labels and the pedestals and the egos, and let’s all of us respect, validate and make the most of the expertise in each other.
Surely, we can be serious about that.
© 2012 Ellen Notbohm
Meet me in Portland
One in 100: A literary look at parenting a child with autism
Did you miss my December newsletter? In Comeback. . . or Setback? we consider whether or not that snappy comeback to rude questions about your child is effective advocacy.
I’m booking speaking engagements, readings and book signings for 2012. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Book excerpts on website
Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew
Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew
1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, 2nd edition
The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled
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©2012 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies