Issue No. 42, January 2013

“You don't need to outdo the competition. It's defensive. Underdo your competition. We need more simplicity and clarity.”

~ Jason Fried

On the Spectrum Between Context and Contest

Welcome, January! The turning of the calendar means we’ve weathered another predictable avalanche of designations of best or worst this or that of the year just ended. The most, greatest, top, first, last or least. Nothing is spared: books, movies, restaurants, shoes, coffee, workout routines, kitchen gadgets, members of Congress, apps, bands, cars, sound bites, t-shirts. Something in us or in the culture drives us to declare these absolutes, bestow these official terms, turn every facet of our lives into a contest.

Such absolutes are the mainstay of questions asked of me in interviews and emails. What is the first thing a parent should do after the autism diagnosis? What is the Number One thing parents must master? The worst thing a parent can do? The best piece of advice you ever received? The single most challenging thing about raising a child with autism? Describe your child’s best teacher. Describe your child’s worst teacher. What was your proudest moment/biggest accomplishment as the mother of a child with autism? What’s the most common mistake parents make? Of your 1001 Great Ideas, which is your favorite? Which of the Ten Things is most important?

And the all-time first-place most worst question I’ve ever been asked: What’s the best way to punish a child with autism?

I hereby declare myself officially weary of absolutes, and this is the year I’m going to change the conversation. If autism teaches us nothing else, it is the meaning of the word “spectrum:” a range, a continuum, a breadth, a gamut. Every color of light visible to us, literally and metaphorically. A coalition of thought, fact and experience on a subject with extremes at either end. When we focus on highlighting the polar margins, we risk missing the vast bandwidth of the spectrum between the extremes. For many years, these most-best-worst-first questions seemed unavoidable, so I felt obligated to answer in kind. In time, I came to the realization that a question phrased in a narrow way didn’t mean I had to answer it narrowly. The answer could be, “There is no single best-worst-most-least-first-last. Let’s explore that question more fully.”

We have a mantra in our house, invoked when we encounter gratuitous statements of more, less, better, worse: “It’s not a competition.” Best, first, top and most are competitive terms, and while competition can be fun, motivating and appropriate in certain situations, allowing it to pervade every aspect of our thinking is not healthy, because what’s missing from most best-worst questions and designations is something we’ve lost track of as a society in a sound-bite, spin-doctor culture: context.

Context is everything. More and more frequently, I find myself having to explain that my book describes ten things about autism—not the “top ten” things, not the only ten things, not ten universally applicable things. The idea that there could be a best or most anything that would apply to all parents or teachers or children is ludicrous, even dangerous. A peek at my website statistics offers a vibrant picture of just how global the scope of our concern about autism. During 2012, visitors from 165 countries and territories arrived on my cyber-doorstep. They reached out from every corner of every continent; they came seeking information, inspiration, encouragement, hope and community. The word cloud below illustrates the breathtaking reach of autism to and from my one little website. Like the air itself, the autism spectrum crosses every natural and manmade border we know, every geographic, political, racial, cultural and socio-economic boundary that exists. It renews my determination to think and speak about our children with autism in terms as individual and timeless as possible.

Cataloging everything into bests and worsts and single-most whatnot not only restricts our thinking, but models the same for our children, many of whom already think in black and white. Life offers few black-and-whites. Our children will learn nuanced thinking, perspective-taking, curiosity and social awareness only through years of our patient guidance through the diversity of thought and opportunity they encounter every day of their lives. “Being best or worst at something is not the end of the world,” opines Bryce, “We still live. We live, and we ‘win’ in other things, in many ways.”

Into any life bracketed by any arbitrary time period come highlights, lowlights, and everything in between. January is a month I look forward to, relishing its peace and bleak beauty as a time to think and reflect and plan. In this contemplative time, I ask myself questions like these:

What did you learn this past year?

Who did you meet who influenced your thinking?

What do you know about your child that you didn’t know a year ago? About yourself?

What will you do differently that proverbial “next time?”

What are you ready to let go of?

What are you ready to reach for?

A decade ago, I confronted a simple but profound question that changed my life. It did not ask me to quantify or rank anything, and my response was all about proving something only to myself, a yearning for a personal accomplishment to which no scale of comparison mattered to me. I can still see that question on the page: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? I cried when I read the question to my husband and he said, well? and I didn’t even take a breath before I whispered, I would write a book. . .

© 2013 Ellen Notbohm
Contact the author for permission to reproduce in any manner

This month's reads

Autism Asperger's Digest

Perspective: A Fine (Motor) State of Affairs

I feel by turns irritated and sad when someone tries to make the case to me that fine motor skills are increasingly unnecessary, that computers, appliances and applications can do all that for us, and good riddance since our kids “aren’t good at” motor skills while many are adept at electronics. What comes from our hands often speaks loudly of our individuality, and does so in tangible and sometimes lasting, time-descendant manner. I don’t want my kids to live a life without these things, and it’s a vital part of what I want them to remember about me. . .


Healing Magazine

The People in Your Language-Depleted Neighborhood

Conversational speech is a learned skill, and often more so for children with autism. The essential component of any learned skill is practice, practice, and more practice. And that is why it came to me on a morning round of errands, why it is that small talk remains a challenge for our kids, and how it is that we no longer talk to the people in our neighborhood. I got cash from an ATM, scanned my groceries through the self-checkout line, used automated checkout at the library, mailed a package at the Automated Postal Center. I’d bypassed at least half a dozen opportunities for human interaction. Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton is quoted as saying that the scarcest resource of the 21st century, “after water and food and all of that,” will be human attention. . .

Bryce Advice

Question to Bryce about forming friendships, from my Facebook page:

Reader: Bryce, what do you think is the best way for us to help our 8 year old (shy and sweet) son make friends? Also, do you think friendship is needed if he doesn't seem interested in having them in the first place?

Bryce: The most important thing is to just be yourself, of course. But if it's still not working, and you really want to make friends, here's the secret that I learned when I finished high school and went on to college. You'll have a lot of buddies if you remember this rule: Interested is Interesting. You see, everyone has a story, and all they want is for somebody to listen to them. You will run into some people who are good and bad. But, if you care about them, they're going to want to be your friend. All you have to do is look at those people. Look when you're talking to someone. Look them in the eye, focus, hear their story, hear what they have to say. You do that, nothing should go wrong. I think friendship is important. You don't have to have a lot of friendships as long as you have at least a couple, the ones who you can share your thoughts with, and they support you as a close buddy. Another thing is no matter how long it takes to make friends, it will happen just when you least expect it. That's how I met my closest buddy, the one who I share all my secrets and similar interests with.


Meet me in Baltimore

I’ll be keynoting the Autism Society of Baltimore-Chesapeake’s annual Honestly Autism Day on April 20 at Towson University. See you there!


New, expanded edition of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew available now!

“Make no mistake, these aren't ten baby concepts which will only hold true for a small part of your child's life. They're adult ones, mantras for living, and they apply forever . . . a book that will get you thinking and a book that could change your life. It probably should be required reading for all parents of children on the spectrum.” ~ Gavin Bollard, Life with Asperger’s

Order now at Amazon

Read a full chapter excerpt, “Help Me with Social Interactions,” on my website

Did you miss my last newsletter? Lessons from a Not-So-Cowardly Lion: When a mom at an autism conference asked me. “How did you find your courage? To do all you’ve had to do for your children?”, I had to examine the many ways in which we define courage, in ourselves and in others.


Keep in touch with me

I’m booking speaking engagements, readings and book signings for 2013. Contact me at

Like me? Like me! My Facebook page is where you can join the discussion and keep up with my latest on Facebook. See you there!

Visit me at for book excerpts, articles, news blog, foreign translations, and newsletter archive.

Follow me on Twitter at @EllenNotbohm

You have a story. I’ll help you tell it. Contact me about affordable rates for developmental editing and writer coaching.

Book excerpts on website

Cick here for book excerpts

New! Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, updated and expanded edition
In its entirety, Chapter 8: Help Me with Social Interactions

Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew
In its entirety, Chapter 3: I Think Differently

1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, 2nd edition
"What We Miss in Misbehavior” and "Game Plan for Meltdowns"

The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled
“The Power of a Cookie”

Newsletter archive: if you are new to our newsletter community, please visit the newsletter archive on my website and browse some popular past features at my newsletter archive.

If you’ve read my books and feel inclined to share your thoughts with others, please consider posting a review on my book pages at It’s easy to do and you don’t have to post your real name.

Please forward this newsletter to anyone you feel might share an interest in our kids with autism. New subscribers can sign up at here.

©2013 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies