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Autism Awareness Month: Keep Your Labels Off My Child

by Jessica Parnell | Apr 14, 2014 | 3 min read

If you have experience educating a special needs child, you know, or at least suspect, that children labeled as “learning disabled” possess certain strengths that far exceed those of an average or even advanced student. However, you have probably also noticed that rather than promoting those strengths and using them to help these students succeed, many schools focus on having them meet the same standards as every other child. As a result, both children and parents are in danger of giving themselves the label of “inadequate,” “stupid”, or even “failure.”

We can’t keep thinking of autism as a disorder that has to be dealt with. Too often “dealing with it” means the same approach for each child. The reality is that Autism is a complicated disorder that cannot be boxed into a black and white diagnosis. It is fairly large spectrum that affects children at different levels and in different ways. In fact, nearly half — 46 percent — of children identified with autism have average to above average intellectual abilities. Imagine what “dealing with” autism means to a child who is so far above others intellectually but is treated as one who is disabled.

We have incredible stories of parents who disregarded common conventions and encouraged their learning disabled and/or autistic child to recognize their strengths and pursue their passions.

One such story goes to Kristine Barnett, who didn’t listen to the doctors and teachers when they told her there was no hope for her 2-year-old son, Jacob. Kristine rebelled and took her own path, which focused on indulging Jacob’s interests — namely science.

Years later, a 14-year-old Jacob is now a student of theoretical physics at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, with an IQ measured to be higher than Einstein’s. Rather than let her son become another label, Kristine searched for her son’s passions and indulged them, giving him an avenue to connect back with the world.

When asked about how other parents can deal with the impact of an autism diagnosis, Kristine said, “It’s really important that when you have a label, you don’t let that label define you. What are your children good at? Let that define them. Create motivations that are self-driven. Let them pursue what they love. As parents, we know in our hearts what our kids need, and we need to trust that a little more. Even if that goes against what others are saying.”

This all sounds great, but where do I even start?

Often times, the first step is finding the best method to reach and connect with your learning disabled child. And that step requires patience as it often means a bit of trial and error. Hang in there. Don’t let frustrations and mishaps get in the way of your desire to find what works for your child. Because when you finally break through, you will be amazed at what he can do!

Take a recent story from Ron Suskind at the New York Times, who saw his son Owen retreat into autism just shy of his third birthday. His usually chatty son fell silent, and refused to make eye contact. Eventually, after dozens of doctors and specialists, Owen was diagnosed with “regressive autism.”

Like any normal parents in this situation, the Suskinds felt like a ship at sea with no rudder — unsure where to turn to next for help or assurance. The only thing their son seemed interested in was watching old Disney movies over and over and over again. And much to everyone’s surprise, it was those animated figures that brought him back to his family.

What follows is an incredible story of a family who found a way to communicate with their autistic son. Ignoring the cynicism of doctors and specialists, the Suskinds indulged his passions and found a way to unleash his potential. If you need some inspiration or encouragement, take a few minutes to read their story.

We reached out to Ron to see what advice he would give to parents with an autistic child, and he was kind enough to share a few words.

The most important thing to remember is, don’t give up!

And when you begin to yourself as a parent and teacher, remember that there is no one in the world who cares about your child’s educational and emotional success more than you do. How could he or she be in better hands?

In a nutshell, don’t be afraid to take your time, to seek out their gifts and passions, to find different ways to connect and to be creative in how you teach your struggling students. And please do not let a label define your child.

If you have a child who struggles using a learning style and personality assessment can help identify alternative teaching styles that work. And if your child is struggling with a specific learning disability, consider Essential Learning Institute’s learning efficiency testing, designed to help you identify the root cause of the struggle — without labels!

Most importantly, always remember that you are not alone. There are myriad communities both offline and online where you can find support and inspiration for your child.

Autism Support Network

Autism Society

The Center for Autism

Autism Support in Pennsylvania

Jessica Parnell
Hello everyone! I’m Jessica Parnell — mom, homeschool evaluator, teacher, and CEO of Bridgeway Academy. In my 20+ years of experience as a homeschool mom and evaluator, I have had the privilege of meeting homeschoolers that take a variety of approaches to their education. It is their many stories and successes that inspire me in my own homeschooling and I love to pass on the knowledge that I have gained from them to other homeschooling families. The one constant that always remains true is that there’s no such thing as a “cookie cutter child.” Each child is fearfully and wonderfully made and as a result, learns and functions differently. It’s our job to ensure that we’re raising each child to fulfill their individual purpose and when we can teach in a way that inspires them, we are on our way to homeschool success. When I’m not writing or teaching my children, I like to ski, write and participate in triathlons. I graduated from Kutztown University with a Bachelor of Science in Education and a Masters in English and I am currently pursuing a degree in Neuroleadership.
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