What they don't know is, Isaac is a remarkable young boy who has an admirable lists of traits. Not only can he list all the different names of train engines, and is beyond his years academically, but he has a special type of capacity in his personality that is unique to his autism. As parents and educators we tend to focus on what went wrong. This overshadows all that is right. In an effort to bring solace to those parents struggling with their spirited children, it's important to remind yourself of the unique traits your children has that a typically developing child may not. In many discussions with other parents of spirited children, I noticed a trend of traits that spirited children have.
If you ever need an honest opinion, ask your child. I have found that my child with autism will give me a raw and literal opinion. He tells it like he sees it, which is a typical trait people with autism have. While it may not always be socially acceptable to be as honest, I see it as a beautiful characteristic. In a world where everyone is hypersensitive to criticism, the social sphere seems to have developed a thick layer of delusion and sugar coating. People with autism can break that barrier and balance out this unnecessary need to put on a show to be accepted.
Affectionate and Caring
Six year old Gabriel has high functioning autism, ADHD, and a host of other diagnoses. While he may struggle with keeping up in social play with other children, he will immediately tune in and inquire when someone is hurt. His concern for others' well being and happiness far surpasses the other children in his class. When someone is unhappy, he will be the one to talk to them. If there is a small child crying in the booth next to his at a restaurant, he is concerned for that child. "What's the matter with her?" "Is she okay?" If his brother is hurt from his own actions, he will be upset that his actions hurt him. This is one of the most common misconception about autism: Lack of empathy. On the contrary, there is often more empathy and affection than those typically developing peers. While their presentation of their empathy may be different, it is still present. In Gabriel's case, he is consumed by others' emotional volatility and wants to understand it to heal it. It's the type of characteristic our world needs. It's the type of trait that will drive a person to make a change to heal the distressed and to come up with ideas to help the hurt. Since Gabriel may not have the ability to sit through someone talking about themselves for long, his empathy and interest in others' emotions is admirable.
Nine year old Aidan has no problem saying no to children. He doesn't feel the peer pressure and social obligation that others feel in social situations. If he sees a transgression, you can count on him to voice his concern. If his older friend is being bullied, he will stand up for him without thinking of how it may affect him. This is the type of bravery that a child has when they are not tied down to social intricacies and rules. As a result, some children may struggle to make lasting friendships. This type of bravery is important however. When it is honed and used correctly, spirited children who possess this type of characteristic are the most loyal of friends and can be successful adults with interesting insight.
Another type of bravery that you see in spirited children, particularly the sensory seekers, is fearlessness. This is the hardest one to accept as a parent because you are constantly worried about their safety. But in a safe environment, they can practice their fearless attempts to contort their body, jump from heights, fall, crash and tumble. While some children will hesitantly go down a tall, steep slide, my child will go down head first with exhilaration in his eyes. This type of bravery and fearlessness can be seen as a trait that can be beneficial for many reasons. Their ability to push further than others can be useful for certain occupations and exploration.
Curious and Observant
A curious child is a learning child. When my spirited child puts his sandwich in his juice, he learns that he can no longer eat it and his juice doesn't taste good. Some of their curiosity may be irritating and sometimes disastrous, but it is important to give our children an opportunity to exercise curiosity within boundaries. My rule is as long as he doesn't hurt himself or others, and break or damage anything, all is fair game. Now you might be thinking, well every child is curious. The type of curiosity a spirited child has is different in nature. It's more intense, more boundary pushing, and often creative. Spirited children may often focus on details that others miss and then question those details. My son's periphery vision is superior to ours. He can tell me a host of details I miss in any given scenario. If George brought a different bag to school, he will ask about it. He will notice if you cut your hair, nails, or whitened your teeth. Then he'll ask why and how. This curiosity helps him understand the world he lives in, a world he feels doesn't understand him. This is why it's vital that we're patient, kind and understanding even when as parents, we don't quite understand them.
CreativeSpirited children have a unique perspective. Their unique perspective gives them the ability to think in unconventional ways. Because they are already "outside the box" so to speak, they have that creative advantage. I asked my son to draw me a picture of a slide. The way he drew it was in his own point of view while going down a slide, rather than an actual drawing of a slide from the point of view I would have drawn. When children start conventional school, they often lose their creative ability. It needs to be nurtured and applauded by including their ideas into their work and play. This gives our children a sense of empowerment and reinforces their creativity as something to embrace.
Spirited children who have autism are known to be logical. They try so hard to connect the dots and make sense of an ever changing and fluid environment. Being logical provides them with a sense of comfort in this chaotic world. Being logical enhances your critical thinking and problem solving skills. It is impossible to convince my spirited child that there is a flying monkey in his closet because he knows it is simply not logical. What does the monkey eat? Where does he poop? How come he doesn't make noise? Why would he even live here? So many good questions. Some spirited children are logical to a fault. It hinders their ability to understand social nuances like sarcasm and body language. That's perfectly okay. Their ability to be logical and problem solve has its many strengths in school, work, and daily living.
GenerousThere was never a time I asked my five year old for a favour that he denied. When his younger sister asks for a toy he cares about, he hands it over even if he still wanted to play with it. If I asked for a piece of his cookie he'll give me the bigger half. When it's time to sort and donate his clothes and toys, he chooses his good toys to donate. Not only is he generous with his belongings, he's never short on love and affection. He'll never pass on an opportunity to hug or cuddle. When I was visiting a friend with a spirited child, her son happily shared his favourite stuffed animal with my younger daughter and shared his Lego with my son, even though he was playing with it. Unfortunately, this characteristic is easily taken advantage of by other children. Particularly in school, generosity can be seen as a weakness and manipulative children may prey on it. This is why it's so important to teach our spirited children to be aware to protect themselves by teaching them how to identify if someone has ill intentions, all while preserving this amazing trait.
As a parent of a spirited child, it is easy to be pulled into a spiral of dark emotions and self pity. It's also completely normal and part of the healing and acceptance process. Always remember to be kind to yourself and remember that under the hard shell of these diagnoses and difficult behaviours, are bright and incredible children. Always remember that.