Life Lessons We Can All Use...from my Daughter with Autism Spectrum Disorder
I decided today on World Autism Awareness Day that I wanted to reflect on and write about what I have learned as the parent of a 9-year old daughter with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Not to write about what I learned during the early years of desperation, distress, confusion, anger, sadness, or frustration, but instead what I know now that I have learned from her as an individual and the special characteristics/attributes that she brings to each day. Things that I believe we can all use in our personal and business lives in some way!
I do realize that ASD is unique in that no child or adult with it is the same; so whatever it is I write about here, please know that I am simply speaking about my own experience with my daughter. So in research terms, we are talking about an n of 1!
1. Have a Lala-land to go to.
My daughter spends a lot of time staring into space. When I say a lot, I mean that it genuinely feels like an eternity if you are watching her. When she was very young and didn't speak, I was paranoid that she was having seizures during these staring spells. She is now able to tell us that she is in Lala-land and that Lala-land is where she goes to for ideas. Ideas for (a) stories she is writing, (b) jokes she will tell you later, (c) research she would like to do on the internet, (d) what her next PowerPoint presentation will be about, or (e) anything else that requires creativity and brainstorming. She might also go to Lala-land to ponder questions and topics that do not have a quick or straight-forward answer....(a) what happens when you die, (b) why do people smoke when they know it is bad for them, (c) why are there so many poor people in the world, (d) what role do cockroaches have in the world, etc. You should see the complete collection of her pondering moments!
The point here is that many of us do not have the opportunity to go to Lala-land often enough to either get the next great idea or ponder important questions in life...like...what our true purpose is. If you are not blessed with ASD and therefore do not naturally drift off into this land for innovation and such, perhaps you can set aside time each day for this...upon waking, just before bed, in the shower, while commuting, or any other time that it might be appropriate! So take a stroll through Lala-land a few times a day and see what happens!
2. Try new things with an open mind.
My daughter will try anything...really. This is 90% great and 10% dangerous! We addressed the 10% in her intensive autism therapy sessions, so that we could then enjoy the 90%. She is a willing participant in new experiences, activities, foods, thrill rides, and so much more. She looks at new things as new, so no need to have any preconceived negative thoughts or emotions tied to it. Ziplining. Parasailing. Scary roller coaster rides. Stand on stage and audition for something. Eat dried seaweed. Taste mystery food in China. Any sport. Any extracurricular activity. Her answer is always- "Sure, I'll try it." Always. She doesn't always love it, but I can tell you that most of the time she finds something to like about it...I think due to the openness of her approach.
I can't tell you how often I am facilitating a training session for successful business professionals and hear how closed off they are to new experiences or new foods. The "I would never do that." or "Eww. That sounds so gross." When new ideas are presented in any context...the immediate reaction is to find what not to like about it or why it won't work. The question is Have You Tried It?
Try something new...something you thought you would never try and see what happens. This isn't just for individuals...this goes for organizations as well. You never know what you will learn. Perhaps the next thing you try... you will love or could be your next big win!
3. Work hard and don't give up, even when you aren't good at something.
My daughter has run on the cross-country team for 4 years now. She has finished every race somewhere in the bottom 20% of runners and has at least once come in dead last. Here is the thing. She goes to every race believing that she could finish first. If I bring up the fact that she has come in nearly last in past races, she simply says, "Yes, but today I am going to run really hard and I think I could be the fastest." The race starts and she runs her best and you can see it in her face. She finally crosses the finish line and her reflection is something like- "I ran my best. I couldn't go any faster and the other girls were just faster today. I will keep practicing." She never gets discouraged, sticks with it, and always has hope. This applies to anything she does, not just running! She is learning that investing effort and never giving up has benefits, even when you don't win the race.
Many of us don't like to do things if we aren't really good at them. We don't see the point of working hard on something that we, at best, will only ever be mediocre at doing. This is the foundation of having a fixed mindset. A growth mindset recognizes that (a) it is important to try things you aren't good at, (b) persistence is key, especially in the face of setbacks, and (c) continued effort is the only way to improve.
Take on something that you won't naturally be good at and give it your all. See what you learn...about yourself!
4. Speak the truth, use facts when possible.
I can't say that my daughter's truthfulness has not been embarrassing or downright mortifying at times. It has been quite a challenge to explain that, although telling the truth is important, it isn't always necessary to tell all truths out loud to everyone in every situation. Luckily, her high-functioning capabilities within the autism spectrum allow her to learn or memorize when to keep certain truths to herself. So, onto the positive aspects of her truth-telling tendencies. She never lies...she appears to be incapable of it (something I hope will continue through her teenage years), but perhaps even more importantly, she is truthful and forthcoming about how she feels and what she thinks. She lets me know when I haven't been spending enough quality time with her or if I haven't kissed her 'Papi' as much lately. She is good at describing the unfolding of events in an argument between children without letting her emotions get in the way of facts, even when it incriminates her in the process. She is fact-based when facts are available, and although sometimes she is too literal with the facts, they help keep her emotions in check.
We all can benefit from speaking the truth more often, especially when it comes to feelings or thoughts we have that should be expressed to those that are important to us. People cannot read our minds and depend on us to speak up in order to understand us or help us. In work situations, facts are always a good start when speaking up and can help temper strong emotions. When more truths are put out in the open, there are more opportunities to understand, compromise, align, and move forward.
5. Embrace who you are and live authentically.
Wearing winter earmuffs in 90-degree temperatures in mid-July is not uncommon for my daughter. Neither is wearing clothes that don't match or clothes not appropriate for the occasion or climate. She isn't into what the other girls are into that are her age...she has no idea who One Direction is...she has never liked princesses...she creates complex PowerPoint presentations in her spare time...she likes to discuss trivia...and she completely marches to the beat of her own drum in many social situations! She is different and is old enough to know it. Because of it, other girls sometimes shun her. And she is also smart enough to know that she could act differently in order to fit into the expectations of others. But she knows who she is, what she likes, and how she wants to live. She loves who she is even if others don't get it and focuses her attention on those who accept her for that. She has great friends and many admirers!
To be who you really are takes courage, but I firmly believe that it is the only way to bring your unique talents to the table. When you try to be how you think others want you to be, you may hide the most valuable parts of who you are. Not only do I see individuals struggle with living authentically, but I see it in organizations as well. Protecting organizational reputation or worrying too much about how you are perceived can get in the way of organizational change, putting a stake in the ground, innovation, taking necessary risks, or standing for something important. Being who you are might mean that not everybody likes you, but instead that you are loved and admired by the most pertinent people possible.
I invite you today, on World Autism Awareness Day, to step into my daughter's world for a moment and see if something amazing happens!