Does autism need 'fixing'?
Please allow me to get a little bit controversial.
There's a fair amount of conversation out there in the world about how people with ASD (of various types) don't need 'fixing', that they're just differently wired, and that people just need to focus on their strengths, find what they're good at and enjoy the journey.
A few years ago I was on an email list for a pretty radical homeschooling group, the convenors of which argued that all education should be completely child-led. I was reading along out of interest rather than conviction (although I certainly was convinced to be a bit more child-led in my parenting than I had been before).
But then I asked a question about my boy with ASD. Did 'child-led' education work the same way when you had a child with ASD?
Their answer was full on. I shouldn't consider that there was anything 'wrong' with my child; it was insulting to the child and I should definitely let him find his own way, focus on his strengths and accept him for the unique person he is. At the same time, the problem was obviously with me, so I should just take a breath and generally be a nicer person.
I pulled my head in, left the group and have avoided this conversation ever since, while still just getting on and doing what I do with my son - RDI and diet therapy.
Just today the same question came up in a facebook group I'm part of. One member asked: "What do people think about the autism awareness message of 'moving away from a deficit model to a strengths based model'? For me, focusing on strengths is a good thing, as long as we arent focusing on strengths that play into reinforcing rigidity (which is what causes most of the diffculties in our house). I worry about the message because it seems to mean 'moving to a strengths based model and ignoring the difficulties' which I dont think is productive at all."
Joanne, another member (who has given me permission to use her first name and publish the below) gave what I consider to be a wonderful answer. I completely agree with her.
She said: "I was very into the neurodiversity movement for a while and have always supported my son to be himself. BUT what I see with RDI and other relationship based therapies is that it's NOT about changing my son. It's about helping him be MORE of him.
I know he will always be who he is. He might become a more flexible version of himself. But he's going to keep his sweet nature and his funny quirky humor. He doesn't like being rigid either! He's miserable when he gets stuck on something. I can see it in his body and face. When I started pushing him gently toward more flexibility he started to relax. His creativity blossomed. '
Kids WANT to be in a Guided Participation Relationship*. I don't know if anyone has ever read up on the parenting work by Gordon Neufeld but it reminds me of RDI. It's about parents stepping into their natural place in the child-parent relationship with is naturally one of mentorship. And that is for neurotypical kids!
I just finished reading a section of the RDI book where Dr Gustein talks about focusing on the weaknesses as well as strengths and I can see how some people might think that focusing on weaknesses means somehow focusing on deficits and "fixing". But honestly, how is that different from, as Dr Gustein mentions, helping someone with a weak eye strengthen it by covering the strong eye to give the weaker eye a chance to get strong? Would anyone ever decide that someone with a weak eye should just let it be and focus on their strong eye? That would be silly!
And neurotypical [kids and adults] work on weaknesses all the time. Does that mean we are changing ourselves or fixing ourselves?
When my son had verbal apraxia should we have given up and decided that his brain was wired to never talk? Someone did actually suggest this to me, which I thought was ludicrous. We worked on his sounds. GENTLY, through play, over many years and now he has them all. And HE is happy. He LOVES to talk."
This has been my approach all along. By guiding my son in the areas he finds difficult, I have a child who is indeed more himself. He's happier and easier to get along with and he has better relationships. He's more flexible and he feels more competent across the board. How is that going to be bad?
*GPR is one of the key cornerstones of RDI - it is about the parent being the 'guide' to their child, as has been studied in neurotypical child development.