Issue No. 56, November 2014

“The best lesson I was given is that all of life teaches,
especially if we have that expectation.”

~ Sam Abell


When Great Expectations aren’t—and why that’s great

“IEP. I Expect Progress.” This unattributed meme, circulating on social media, is one Great Expectation with which I expect we can all agree.

But more often, we walk that metaphorical tightrope, with a heavy balance bar of expectation for our child with autism. If we set the expectation too low, we risk instilling an attitude of “You don’t think I can do it. Why try?” If we impose an expectation too high, the child may foster feelings of “I’m never good enough. Why try?” We learn, whether quickly or after long and painful experience, that the only meaningful expectations are the ones that are challenging but always attainable.

The same goes for our expectations for ourselves. Too low, and we may never draw forth our child’s full potential. The expectation too high yields the same result, with the added poignancy of modeling for your child how to be self-defeating.

That’s when Great Expectations aren’t great. A recent message from a sweet and devoted parent brought this into focus: “Thank you for clarifying my many confusions . . . I hope to acquire the brain and calm like yours to understand my child and never let him down.”

To never let him down.

In first and second grade, my son Connor had one of those exceptional teachers you remember all your life. So outstanding was she that when we left her classroom for the last time, I lamented, “What are we going to do? We’ve already had the best. It’s all downhill from here.” She replied, “Not true. There are many, many excellent teachers out there.”

It then happened that Connor segued from her classroom to a summer basketball camp whose instructor was, well, not an excellent teacher. A retired professional coach whose skills didn’t always transfer to children, he spoke roughly with the kids and made some of them feel bad about themselves. Connor, an unintimidated tower of 8-year-old outrage, scolded him, “Mrs. A. would never speak to us that way! You have a lot to learn about talking to children!”

Of course I repeated the conversation to Mrs. A. when school resumed. And although she was no longer Connor’s teacher, she sought him out to give one last piece of memorable advice. “You are going to meet thousands of people in your life,” she told him. “Some of them are going to disappoint you.”

We all know this is true. What’s hard to accept is that sometimes the person who disappoints our child is going to be us.

My reader wanted to acquire “the brain and calm to understand my child and never let him down.” With his motivation, acquiring the knowledge and problem-solving skills to parent well his child with autism—a given. Using that knowledge to bolster his parenting confidence and patience—probable. Believing that he can get to a place where he will never let his child down? Highly unlikely—and I would argue that, painful as it can sometimes be to confront our human fallibility, being 100% available, strong and correct isn’t in the best interest of our children.

In my 2007 essay “What We Leave Unsaid,” I wrote

I made plenty of mistakes, put my all into things that didn’t work, really got to know what the ceiling above my bed looked like in the dark. Have hated myself more times than I can count; have never, ever hated them. Couldn’t forgive myself; found that my children were far more resilient and forgiving than I had any right to hope for.

Disappointment, forgiveness, resilience. The stronger the foundation of support and unconditional love you build under your child, the better he’ll be able to handle your occasional stumbles. Learning to deal with disappointment builds that resilience. It’s one of the most valuable life skills of all, and it only comes with experience. But just as valuable, your occasional shortfalls allow him to learn forgiveness, resolution and grace—thereby giving him the opportunity to demonstrate his unconditional love for you. You both need that.

The mother/father of all concerns for most of us autism parents is, what happens to our child after we’re gone? Building in our children the robust ability to roll with life’s punches is the best fortification we can give them, and ourselves, for this inevitability. Beginning to learn it within the safety of our love is an honorable start.

© 2014 Ellen Notbohm
“What We Leave Unsaid,” The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled



This month in Autism Asperger’s Digest


“What Would He Have Told Me If He Could?”

I teach children who have autism. The aggression toward staff and students of one boy was so hard to manage. I feel like I failed him and his classmates by not being able to establish a safe place for him to learn. What do you think he would have told me if he could have?

All humans—all creatures—need a functional means of communication. In our culture, we’ve designated speech as the gold standard of interpersonal communication. This emphasis on “using our words” is so prevalent that when children with under-developed language skills reach out to us nonverbally, we may miss their attempts to connect. Nearly all children with autism need some form of adaptive communication. When we fail to give a child a functional, meaningful means of communication, his needs and wants go unmet and he finds a way to communicate by whatever means he can. This is what your student was telling everyone around him, loud and clear—that he wasn’t able to express his needs and wants in the manner expected by the adults around him, and that he had not been taught an alternate form of functional communication. He was forced to resort to the only other means he had—his behavior. . .


This month on my Pinterest quotables board

See more pins:

  • Teach children to be functional within their autism, not to replicate “typical” children
  • “I can sense more than I can communicate, and the #1 thing I sense is whether you think I ‘can do it.’”
  • For child with autism, meltdowns never come “out of the blue.”
  • Not weird and different--wired differently.

Follow my Pinterest Quotables board for new pins to share each week, or browse my other boards of book reviews, articles, interviews and translations. Got an idea for a board you’d like to see? Contact me through my website or directly at


Downloadable PDF summaries of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew now available on my website.

Did you miss my last newsletter? Visit the archive on my website for past features.

  • Dude, where’s my IEP? Ten Things Parents of Children with Autism Want Principals to Know
  • Smarts and Crafts: Message in a Birdhouse
  • The Two-Word Mantra for IEP Meetings
  • Who are They Calling a Lost Cause?
  • Autism Misconceptions for Smarties

On my blog:

  • How these autism parents stayed married
  • “My son is being suspended due to his autism.”
  • “Look me in the eye” demands role reversal
  • Autism parents redefine obligation, freedom


Writing your story? Contact me about affordable rates for developmental editing and writer coaching at

Excerpts from all my books are on my website, including full chapters from Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew.

All content in this newsletter ©2014 Ellen Notbohm