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2016 Gala Keynote Address by John P. Hussman

“Offer them Courage” – Remarks at the 11th Annual HCAS Pieces of the Puzzle Gala

John P. Hussman, Ph.D.

“When I was growing up,” said my friend Jamie Burke, “speaking was so frustrating. I could see the words in my brain, but then I realized that making my mouth move [was needed to] get those letters to come alive, they died as soon as they were born. What made me feel angry was to know that I knew exactly what I was to say and my brain was retreating in defeat.”

My brain was retreating in defeat. Imagine how that must have felt.

I’ve been thinking about two words all week: Courage and Discourage.

In all of the teaching strategies, behavioral supports, picture schedules, and other tools that we pick up over time and stuff into our bag, as parents, teachers, and friends of people with autism, one of the things we can miss is that one, simple, powerful idea: courage.

And in our hopes of teaching our children the right way to do something – to tie a shoe, to say a word, to greet someone new, one of the things we might overlook is the capacity of enough disappointed looks, errors, and shake of the head, to discourage.

Through research, we’re increasingly finding that autism affects what’s called “connectivity” – the synchronized activity that connects outgoing and incoming signals from different areas into a single whole. Every time we speak, or move, our brains need to coordinate areas that choose our actions; that store our movement plans; that send signals to our muscles; and that get feedback from our senses. People with autism often experience a disconnect between intention and action – between what they want to do and what their brains and bodies will allow them to do. Like Jamie said: I could see the words in my brain, but making my mouth move? My brain retreated in defeat.

And that’s where courage comes in. Not just a feel-good, motivational speech kind of courage. No, for people with autism, real courage goes hand in hand with the presumption of competence. The idea that even if we don’t hear their words, we know that they still has something to say.

To offer courage to a person with autism; to presume their competence; to let them know that every effort is valuable, is part of that. The other part is to offer courage to ourselves.

Research finds that one of the best predictors of future outcomes for children with autism is the belief of parents and teachers that the person with autism is capable of learning and improving, and that their own efforts are able to make a difference. We call those attitudes “child efficacy” and “self efficacy.”

Again, that’s not just a kind of “feel good” optimism. Those attitudes have a direct effect on our day-to-day actions. When we presume the competence of a person with autism, and our own competence that we can make a difference, we offer that person more time, greater engagement, higher expectations, more conversation and access to age-appropriate information, and greater inclusion in classrooms, family activities, and the community. All of that makes a difference. And all of it takes courage.

I was at a conference a few weeks ago with my friend Grant. He’s a 13-year old young man with autism. 6 years ago, he had no way to communicate. Didn’t speak a word, and still doesn’t. But with an enormous amount of work, he developed the ability to type, fully independently. As he sat next to me, answering a question about what he thought was important for others to understand about autism, he typed:

“Now, I would teach everybody that tumultuous neurology does not equate to success or failure, but progress in the right direction every day. Don’t count me out if I fail ten times. Very much big on the groundbreaking idea of ‘not yet.’ Then help question with me how to succeed.”

Success. Failure. Courage. Discourage.

Don’t count me out if I fail ten times.

How do we actually do that? By knowing that the words are there, even if they go unspoken. By first embracing people with autism as they are, without requiring them to pass a test to be worthy of attention, or conversation, or knowledge. By looking at them as competent. And by looking at ourselves as competent.

“When we change the way we look at things,” the late Wayne Dyer often said, “the things we look at, change.”

Of all the things we can’t control – and we discover so many of those as parents, and teachers, and friends of people with autism – the one thing we can control, is the way we look at them. It does make a difference.

So look at them as competent. Offer them courage.

Have a great evening.