Anat Baniel has been working with children with severe physical challenges for nearly 30 years. She has an impressive resume, but it was when she told me, “Autism isn’t behavioral, it’s perceptual,” that I first thought that I’d like to work with her.
The essays in this space are going to deal almost entirely with perception. That is, I will not be offering any therapeutic suggestions for anyone caring for a child on The Spectrum. There are so many things we can do to help our children, regardless of their needs. I don’t know you, or your child, but I do know that how we see the world determines what we will do to help our children and ourselves. For instance, if we believe there are broken people in the world, we might try to fix our child. If we do not believe there are broken people in the world, we will not try fix our child because you cannot fix what isn’t broken.
When we talk about autism we are always talking about behavior. Though it is discussed like a disease, there is no virus for white blood cells to attack, no tumor to be removed. There are only behaviors that are not what we would call normal. When my son Sawyer was younger he retreated into an imaginary world where he would run back and forth and hum and flap and talk to himself. He did this at home and he did it at school. That was his behavior, and we wanted it to stop.
It is tempting to view his behavior as somehow very different than, say, my behavior. It looks aberrant, therefore it must derive from something aberrant. Yet what is behavior but a reflection of perception? If I perceive a dragon standing in the middle of my street, I will behave as if there is a dragon standing in the middle of my street regardless of whether there is one or not. You could try to teach me to behave as if there isn’t a dragon, you could give me medication so I wouldn’t behave as if there is a dragon, but as long as I see a dragon I will continue to behave accordingly. I would be crazy not to.
I’ve seen a lot of dragons in my life. I’ve seen them in failure and I’ve seen them in victory. I’ve seen them in my children and in my wife and in my friends and certainly in those people I have called my enemies. When I saw dragons I behaved accordingly. I accused people of crimes I believed they had committed; I readied my sword for attacks that would never come; I complained about the world and its unfairness, for all these dragons didn’t care one wit for my wellbeing. For a time, I believed it was my job to slay all these dragons. I would slay them with success, or with a good argument, or with my virtue. Yet the dragons kept appearing.
By and by I decided that instead of trying to slay them I would learn to see through them. After all, I was only drawing my sword so that I could live in a world without dragons. What if I already did? Shouldn’t I find out if I already lived in the world I was trying so hard to create?
So what does this have to do with autism? We want our children to be normal. That is, we want them to be capable of creating a meaningful life. What if, despite their behavior, they already are normal? What if they already possess the very same tools you and I possess that guide us through our life and toward our meaning? The first thing Jen, my wife, and I did with Sawyer was stop telling him he was wrong to pretend and hum and flap. Maybe all that humming and flapping was a response to a perception of the world. Maybe he was seeing some kind of dragon. Instead of getting him to stop humming and flapping, we wanted him to start seeing a world without dragons.
And the very best way to do that was to stop seeing them ourselves. This is what we are going to do here. I think everyone in the world believes in dragons. In this way, we are all autistic. It takes practice to see a world without dragons. Consider this space part of our practice. Every time we choose to see the world and our children and ourselves as correct instead of incorrect we practice seeing a world without dragons, a world where no one is broken.
I welcome feedback and questions. Feel free to post any comments or questions below, or contact me directly.
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I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.