If only I had read this book early in my teaching career.
That was my thought as I turned the last page of Kristine Barnett’s book, The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism. Her tale of her two-year-old son’s autism diagnosis, his downhill slide into silence, and her decision to build upon strength in him rather than always remediating his weaknesses resonated with me.
Granted, Barnett’s son Jake had amazing strengths to build upon. Now fourteen, he’s verbal, well-socialized, and in graduate school. Yes, graduate school. Studying physics and solving math problems thought unsolvable (think Good Will Hunting) thanks to an IQ higher than Einstein’s.
But his mom didn’t know that when he was three, uncommunicative, and displaying classic symptoms of autism. She was firing a shot in the dark when she decided to give him time to build strength. She gave him time to explore his passions, which at the time were stars, light and shadows, stringing yarn around the house in strange patterns, and dumping the contents of cereal boxes on the floor.
The lesson to be found in this story is not to pull our kids with special needs out of therapy. The lesson is not for parents to allow kids to stare blankly at lights and shadows. The lesson is not that we should look the other way when our kids throw cereal on the floor.
The lesson is for parents to look for our children’s passions and to give them time to build strength by pursuing those passions.
I didn’t learn that lesson in time use it in my classroom. But, God has granted me time to pass it along to you, along with a few tips about how to build strength in your kids with special needs.
Build Upon Strength Through Prayer
Before you do anything else, start praying. Thank God for making your child just as she is. Thank him for the strengths and weaknesses he placed in her, and ask him to give you new eyes to see those strengths. Then use those new eyes discover what your child is passionate about. What makes her face light up? What does he like to talk about? What toys draw him back over and over? Where does she feel most comfortable? What does he notice that you don’t? Which of her senses does she engage or respond to the most? The answers to those questions and other nuances you observe may be the key to your child’s passions.
Build Upon Strength Through Play
Once you have an idea of your child’s passions, foster it through play. Barnett did this by taking three-year-old Jake to the countryside at night. They lay on their backs and looked at the stars together. You can do the same thing by providing play experiences related to your child’s passions. Make the experience as sensory-rich as possible–filled with smells, sounds, textures, flavors, and visual images–with particular emphasis on the senses your child uses the most.
Most importantly, give your child time to play. While early intervention and therapy are crucial to maximizing a child’s abilities, don’t let it take over the life of your child with special needs. Give your child time to play. Because, play is the work of childhood, and kids need to do it.
Build Upon Strength Through Purpose
Yes, your child needs time to play and explore freely. But you can use purposeful, intentional activities to build upon strengths. Go to the library and check out books about your child’s passions. Bring them home and read them together. Make up games that develop strengths. Take field trips. Start conversations. Do projects. Do all those things purposefully, as a way to build upon your child’s strengths.
Build Upon Strength Through God’s Promises
You can also build strength by sharing God’s promise that your child is fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:14) Assure your child that the source of all strength is Christ. One of my favorite verses comes from 2 Corinthians 12:9.
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”
Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
In terms of strengths and weakness, that promise is the ultimate win-win situation. May God’s promise to be strength in your weakness and your child’s give you the confidence to celebrate your child’s strengths and build upon them.