Autism is a neurological issue in the brain –not a mental illness or intellectual disability.
I placed my iPad beside Wonder Boy's talker. "What's the matter?" I echoed. I tapped his machine.
Wonder Boy pressed buttons. "Carrot," the machine said. "Dragonfly."
"What's the matter?" Wonder Boy muttered.
On my iPad, I typed, "My stomach hurts."
Wonder Boy expertly navigated to the designated words. "My stomach hurts," the machine sang.
"My stomach hurts," Wonder Boy said.
I am hungry. I am tired. I am thirsty. I want to go potty. I want to play.
Wonder Boy copied my keystrokes and spoke each phrase. He was no longer in distress, but I still didn't know the source of his troubles.
In the autism community, "presume competence" is a rally cry reminder to assume, especially in the absence of physical evidence, that every child has the ability and desire to learn and communicate. Responsible caretakers provide experiences that promote learning so each child has the opportunity to one day assert himself in the world.
It's easy to forget to presume competence when a child with autism doesn't communicate in expected ways. When he doesn't make eye contact, respond appropriately or is consumed by stimming and scripting.
We fail to presume competence when we speak to him in a sing-songy voice or carry a physically capable, elementary aged child around like an infant. Failure forgets to plug his talker in overnight, does not insist he's kind, take turns and postpone gratification, even when it's hard. Failure is not patient when he's slow to respond. We fail to presume competence when we talk about him in his presence as though he wasn't there.
Because in most cases? Even when all evidence points to the contrary, and he doesn't, or can't, respond? The child with autism is listening. With comprehension.
What do autistic children understand?
To presume competence is to expect that he can. And to seek the enabling connection, with love and patience, until he does.
Wonder Boy was 5 years old and still in diapers when he came to live with Super Daddy. He couldn't dress himself, brush his teeth, attend to a story, read, write or count. He didn't respond to his name, couldn't hold a pencil and gave no indication he understood language.
Now, a year and a half later, Wonder Boy does all of those things. And more.
Autism alters the brain's mechanics and affects the conditions under which learning happens. Autism does not decree a lack of intelligence.
Wonder Boy copied letters from a pre-written page. Dear GGPa, Dear GGMa, he wrote to his great grandparents. I love you. Independently, Wonder Boy signed his name. Then? He picked up Super Daddy's locked and darkened phone, input the password and navigated, through photos, apps and programs, to a favored game.
There are no guarantees in life - or autism. Diligent effort stacks the possibilities. Persistence increases the odds.
But first? One must presume competence.