Common Mistakes in Raising Children with Autism

Being autistic myself, I get "insider information" not available to many other parents. It is often painful for me to see mistakes from other parents when interacting with their children on the spectrum. Here is a list of common mistakes that I see from many parents.

1. Lack of visual communication
2. Fixation on typical children's behaviors and milestones
3. Use of authority
4. Use of high-intensity repetition/drill
5. Accumulation of resentments
6. Interpreting tantrums as misbehavior
7. Lack of manual output
8. Attempting to change a child's behavior
9. Suppressing repetitive behaviors (stims)
10. Ignoring repetitive behaviors (stims)
11. Fixation on sensory problems
12. Verbalizing too early
13. Socializing too early
14. Usage of drugs
15. Lack of one-on-one fun time

Many parents often tend to argue that each child's case is different.So let me clarify two things here first.

Universality: Due to signal amplification coming from the additional synaptic connections in autistic children, their communication channels simplify. It is universal that all children on the spectrum have exceptional visual skills as compared to their verbal and social skills. In physics the same situation is observed in something called Renormalization Group ( Maximization of contrasts is a given, and universality of structures is observed. Another universal phenomenon in autistic children is their diminished sense of self/identity.

Fluctuations: Different children on the spectrum have difference interests, different sensory issues, degrees of hyperactivity, and whether they are pro-video or pro-picture. Those fluctuations (anisotropy) come from the "accretion" process much like the formation of galaxies in our universe due to gravitational self interaction: some spots get massive distribution, some other spots become depleted.

I am fully aware what are universal and what are fluctuations. My discussions below are general enough for most children on the spectrum.

In today's technology-oriented world, having an autistic child is an asset, not a liability. When developed properly, autistic children can greatly contribute to our society. Autistic children have additional synaptic connections inside their brains. They have powerful brains, they are born for our tomorrow's world. However, these powerful brains require a different way of development. It's a bit like having a nuclear power plant in your hands. When everything is done correctly, you'll enjoy the amazing achievements from these children. When handled incorrectly, you'll have a nuclear meltdown.

Detailed discussions follow.

1. Lack of visual communication

It is perhaps surprising to the audience that I would place the lack of visual communication as the number-one mistake in raising children with autism.

To me, the lack of visual communication is the root of all evils in our society's dealings with autistic children. Matter of fact, I believe that if visual communication were done correctly and early on, all the other points below would become moot points. That's how important I view visual communication is.

I cannot really stand watching parents communicating with non-verbal autistic children without using visual cues. I compare it to myself trying to explain Fourier Transforms and Renormalization in Quantum Field Theory, to a non-technical audience: it is pointless. My words would go into one of their ears and go out the other ear immediately. Why? Because even though in my mind I am relating important and meaningful messages, to the audience it's all just noise: there is nothing they can relate to, there is nothing they can hold on to. The same thing is true when you talk to non-verbal autistic children without using visual cues. Zero information is absorbed. Not because the children do not want to pay attention to you, but because they simple cannot understand your message. It's all just noise to them, like my comments on Fourier Transforms and Renormalization of Quantum Fields are to the non-technical audience.

Most parents would claim they would do anything to help their children. But when it comes to drawing pictures for their children, many of those same parents would modify their statement to: "well, I'll do anything to help my children except drawing pictures." And when it comes to making personalized cartoon video clips for their children, many of those parents would further modify their statements to "well, I'll do anything to help my children, except drawing pictures and except making personalized cartoon video clips." Pretty soon the exceptions overtake what the parents are actually willing to do.

The point is, many parents view the usage of visual communication as bizarre, as strange, as too time consuming. Many parents view communicating with children visually as embarrassing. Many parents place their own ego first, and the development of their children second.

Non-verbal autistic children need to be communicated through their eyes, not their ears.

Instead of searching for excuses (e.g.: "my child is not visual" is the most typical excuse), parents can better disregard their own ego problems, and start immediately to communicating with their children, visually.

It is of course an excuse to claim that autistic children are not visual. Every single "low-functioning" autistic child I have ever met, can focus on video clips and video games. Parents prefer to let their autistic children stim with video games, simply because playing video games is a "socially acceptable behavior." If the children are perfectly capable of staring at a tablet computer during their entire waking hours, of course they are visual.

Why is visual communication so crucial? Because without proper visual communication, a plethora of issues will follow. Like
  • Accumulation of resentments
  • Increase in frequency and intensity of tantrums
  • Escapism, refusal to learn
  • Hyperactivity, Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Lack of verbal skills
  • Lack of social skills
  • Unmitigated repetitive behaviors
  • Permanent sensory problems
  • etc.
It is frustrating to me to see parents arguing about the utility of visual communication. Many cannot see the connection between visual communication and all these other consequences. To me, it's like some parents prefer to go down the wrong path, until the lives of their children and their own lives are totally ruined.

Autism means hard work for the parents. Sometimes I spend 6, 8, 10 or more hours preparing video clips for my children. To me as an autistic person myself, it's all natural: I can focus on preparing a message for my children, without problems. It's my way of communicating with my children, particularly with my son.

Many parents wrongly believe that visual communication means to go out there and buy some visual products for their children. It does not work that way. No third party products out there has access to the intimate life details of your children. You can't delegate your parenting duties to third party products. The same is true with your external aides: no outsiders hold the crucial personal information of the daily life of your family. Therapists and schools are there to help, but the lion share of responsibility falls squarely on the parents.

2. Fixation on typical children's behaviors and milestones

Autistic children are not typical children. Autistic children have their own way of developing and their own schedule. Forcing them into the paradigm of typical children brings too many problems.

Autism and deficiencies in verbal and social skills don't need to be synonyms. Matter of fact, when I look at my daughter and see how sociable she is, I realize that my development during my childhood was totally turned upside down to the natural path of an autistic person. Sure, at my age, I have become socially "passable" person, and whenever I go to meetings with other people on the spectrum, I would often tell myself: "my that is the way I was before." It took me decades to become a socially "passable" person. In comparison, my daughter, at age 7, is far more verbal and sociable than myself.

For wanting too much to achieve the milestones of typical children, parents neglect to develop the visual-manual foundation for the brain functions of their autistic children. As a consequence, many children turn out much worse than what they are actually capable of.

Case in point. If I start to teach a non-technical audience about Fourier Transforms and Renormalization in Quantum Fields, here and now, the result would be disastrous. Why? Because to understand those concepts, one actually needs to have some foundation in basic linear algebra, calculus, and introductory modern physics. Similarly, the natural path of development for children on the spectrum is through building their foundation on visual-manual skills first. It is counterproductive to follow the milestones and schedules of typical children: it can cause more harm than good.

3. Use of authority

If you ever have an opportunity to talk with adults on the spectrum, one common theme that you will find out very quickly is: they all want to be treated as equal, as equal-rights human beings.

There is a deeper root to this. Due to signal amplification inside the brains of people on the spectrum, their attention is largely shifted away from the "ego" center inside their minds. Unlike their typical peers, autistic people tend to lack a strong sense of "self," and tend to view things from a third-person's perspective. It is as if their eyes are outside their bodies: they view themselves from outside. They see themselves as just one more person, among all. This selfless nature and attitude is a great asset in the autistic children. When properly guided, and combined with their intellectual capability, autistic children have all the potential to bring a brighter future to our world.

It is extreme difficult for autistic people to understand the subtleties in the ego and power structure of our typical society. Case in example, I was discussing a situation where my son Ivan was refusing to get on the high chair for dinner, he was throwing a tantrum. Someone else pointed out to me: "your son is misbehaving." I was taken by that comment by surprise. To me, throwing tantrums and misbehavior are two totally different things. I had the hardest time understanding the word "misbehaving." It took me a while to realize why that word was not even in my vocabulary in my daily dealings with my children. Whenever someone uses the term "misbehavior," an implicit assumption is made: the speaker is assuming the status of a higher power, and not treating their children as true equals.

I have difficulty understanding why parents would want to treat their children as non-equals. To me, these children have all the potential to grow up, be smarter, and more successful than we the parents. Also, autistic children tend to have long memories. So why in the world would any parent want to leave a bad impression in these children? Then it hit me: many parents implicitly assume that autism is a defect. Thus, there is no basis for equality. Instead of viewing autism as an asset in their children, they have chosen to view autism as a liability.

I often make video clips for my son. Some of these video clips may take 6, 8, 10, or more hours to make. My own mother would often shake her head at how much time I spend in preparing those video clips. But to me, when I go out to meet important business clients, I often spend even more time in preparing the PowerPoint presentations for the meetings. Why would I treat my own son any less importantly than some stranger business clients?

Many parents would jump in at this moment and say: children should not be spoiled. Most parents have this fear that, if we somehow don't manipulate the children, the children will manipulate us. I would say this is precisely the biggest misunderstanding about autistic children. Those parents are assuming their autistic children are just as neurotypical as other children. And that is a big mistake.

Autistic children lack the capability of "greediness" and sense of "ego" of typical children. So the fear of parents of autistic children becoming manipulative is unwarranted.

Autistic children want to be treated as equals. They may be your children today, but tomorrow they are just another set of human beings. on equal footing with everyone else.

This does not mean to treat your children as kings and queens. No, your children't don't want that, either. The very thought of "kings and queens" is again, a biased neurotypical concept. Equals mean equals. It does not mean parents cannot set rules for their children. Rules can be be set, but explanations must be given. Parents must explain to their children the rationale and benefits behind the rules. Simply setting rules is NOT treating their children as equals. Explaining the rationale/benefits of rules, now that's treating your children as equals. It encourages your children to understand the rules, and one day they will be able create their own rules. We don't want our children to be just followers. We want them to be leaders.

4. Use of high-intensity repetition/drill

Another typical mistake of parents is the belief that if only they repeat an exercise enough times, their children will learn.

When Mindy was two years old, her aunt tried to teach Mindy to call her "auntie." She said, she will use the "communist method," meaning high-intensity repetition of her message, until the child can call her auntie. Good luck. She never succeeded. I instead went to a local pharmacy and printed out the photo pictures of all the grandparents, uncles and aunties. Then showed Mindy those pictures and taught her that way. Mindy learned to call her uncle and auntie's names in no time.

When I was a child, I couldn't pronounce the /g/ sound in my native language. My parents tried for about 10 years to teach me to say that sound. I never learned. When I was 12 years old, we moved to South America. I learned to pronounce the /g/ sound the first day I learned Spanish. One day, versus 10 years. What made the difference? I learned Spanish visually, by learning its alphabet first.

It's easy to accuse the children as having neurological problems or learning disability. I don't think I had neurological problems or learning disability, and I believe I've got a PhD to prove that. I just needed to be taught differently: visually.

In the case of pro-video children, the use of high-intensity repetition to correct their mistakes (e.g.: in speech) is particularly harmful. These children store entire sequences of a processes in their minds, and those sequences not amenable to changes. Entire processes are "eigenvectors" or building blocks in their brain functions: you can't change them without destroying the person. Instead of trying to correct their mistakes in specific spots, it is actually much more helpful to start from a clean slate and teach them new processes or sentences.

High-intensity repetition is a failed technique. It's the same failed technique used by millions of parents in the past. There is no need to repeat this same mistake. The usage of high-intensity repetition destroys the bonding between the children and the adults, and invariably escapism will ensue in these children, which makes them even less teachable. And by then, many parents would resort to punishments and/or drugs for their children, without any light at the end of the tunnel.

5. Accumulation of resentments

Escapism and tantrums are invariably reflection of resentments. And resentments are built up through time.

Autistic children have long memories. It is as if they carry an accountant's double-entry ledger in their brains, and every time you make a mistake, you score a negative point in this double-entry ledger. If these children are non-verbal, it often becomes an impossible task for parents to remove those negative points from the minds of their children.

That is one of the reasons why visual communication is so important. Even for non-verbal children, doing picture-aided talking, especially at bedtime, is an effective way of removing those negative feelings from these children's double-entry ledger. Your non-verbal children may not fully understand your explanation, but they will appreciate your making an effort to communicate with them. That's all that matters: they just need a reassurance that there is good reason behind your actions, and that you have acted with best of intentions and that what you did makes sense.

Whenever there is a negative episode in the lives of these children, parents must be pro-active in talking to their children through pictures, at bedtime. Each bad experience must be cancelled as soon as possible. If not, the parents will forget, but the children won't, and the negative feelings will start to pile up, day after day, week after week, year after year. By then, it would be a daunting task to teach to these children. I would say all tough cases of "behavioral problems" come from the accumulation of resentments, and resentments are accumulated because parents simply have not developed visual communication skills with their children, which takes us back to precisely the first bullet point on this list.

Don't let resentments accumulate. After every single negative episode, talk to your children through pictures. For older children, put it down in writing, with illustrations.

6. Interpreting tantrums as misbehavior

I had a professor in my PhD program. He was a well-known temperamental person. He would stand up in big conferences and point out what he viewed as mistakes from the speakers, and make nasty comments about them, all in front of the public audience. He made so many enemies that many people thought he would soon run out of grants for his projects. It was at that moment that he was given the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The point is, the Nobel Prize committee never paid attention to temper issues. If the Nobel Prize committee can look beyond temper issues, so can you.

To me, tantrums from autistic children mean "having beef." And "having beef" is legitimate. You address the beef, the tantrum is gone. As simple as that.

I'd like to borrow a quote from Nelson Mandela here: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Children are not born to hate. They are born to "have beef." When they throw tantrums, they simply want you to know there is an issue in need of your attention. You address the issue appropriately, their tantrum would disappear. Not only would they get closer to you, the next time they throw tantrums, they will becomes milder and milder.

Addressing your children's "beef" does not mean yielding to their demands. It means to treat your children as equal-rights human being, and explaining to them the best solution in each case. Equals mean equals. What you want to do is to aim for the greatest good of the whole family, or the whole community.

7. Lack of manual output

Deep thinking skills are what separate humans from animals. Typical children develop their deep thinking skills early on, because they can hear their own voice. In other words, they close their "outer feedback loop" through their oral-aural channel.

For non-verbal children on the spectrum, the oral-aural feedback loop is simply not there. Instead, a visual-manual outer feedback loop must take place. In order for non-verbal autistic children to develop their deep thinking skills (and effectively become humans), they MUST be allowed to produce their own manual output.

For pro-picture children (or pro-video children that already have pro-picture skills), this means drawing pictures and writing. For pro-video children, this means playing with 3-dimensional building blocks and other construction-style toys.

Humans learn not just because they absorb external information. The "output" component is just as important as the "input" component. Creativity and expressiveness can only happen when children have adequate means to produce their own visual-manual output. The lack of 3-dimensional construction-style toys effectively impedes the development of deep thinking skills in pro-video children, and will negatively impact their verbal and social skills later on as well.

8. Attempting to change a child's behavior

This is another common and obvious mistake from parents. There is a mismatch in the usage of verbs. Let us be clear about how to use the verbs "change" and "develop."

Adults change. Children develop.

Period. Full stop. When you apply the verb "change" to children, that immediately raises a red flag. Because we usually don't apply that verb to neurotypical children. By using the verb "change," we are assuming that there is something wrong with our autistic children. We are assuming that they are born "wrong."

But to me, as an autistic person, I really fail to see anything wrong with autistic children(*). To put it in context, I once heard from another autistic person: "I think I am very normal, but everybody around me thinks that I am weird." There you go: normalcy is relative.

Behavior of their children should have NEVER been the focus of attention of parents. Development of skills should be the focus. Instead of fixating on behaviors, parents should focus their energy on communicating with their children and teaching them additional skills.

(*) When I say there is nothing wrong with autistic children, I mean it. And that includes sensory issues. It's not that I choose to ignore these issues. I believe all children, autistic or not, have sensory issues, by nature. When children are properly developed, sensory issues are gone. The key is development.

9. Suppressing repetitive behaviors (stims)

Virtually all children on the spectrum exhibit some form of repetitive behaviors (stims). The absolute worst thing to do is to suppress their repetitive behaviors. To me, repetitive behaviors are pristine signals in the momentum space inside the brains of these children: they are the building blocks of the brain function of these children. Not only there is nothing wrong with these behaviors, they represent the gateways for us to interact and communicate with these children. It hurts me to see parents shutting down these doors to their children's inner world, and then complain about their children's "learning disability."

The rule is rather simple: do not suppress the repetitive behaviors of your children. Their behaviors should never become the focus of your attention. Instead, you should be focusing your energy on: "what skills should my children learn?"

10. Ignoring repetitive behaviors (stims)

The second worst thing a parent can do is to ignore their children's repetitive behaviors. When children stim, that's the moment of their maximum attention. If we don't teach them at their moment of maximum attention, when will we teach them?

Stimming time is learning time. When my son stimmed with vacuum cleaners, I taught him a whole bunch of skills, from becoming able to focus on static picture, to follow simple commands, to verbalize, to be able to read up to 5-word sentences, etc. When my son stimmed with elevators, he learnt to talk, to draw, to type on computers, to do math addition problems, and to carry on a conversation, all through his passion with elevators.

Stimming time is learning time. Your children are opening the door for you to teach them new skills. View repetitive behaviors from a positive angle, and help your children grow.

Your focus should NEVER be wanting to make the repetitive behavior go away. Repetitive behaviors themselves are totally irrelevant to the education of these children: if repetitive behaviors are present, we use them as gateways to teach our children. If repetitive behaviors disappear, we teach our children some other way. Your focus should only be: what skills do my children need to learn?

11. Fixation on sensory problems

All infants have sensory problems. It's natural to have sensory problems as a child: it's part of growing up. Due to signal amplification inside the brains of autistic children, their sensory problems are just more noticeable.

In autistic children, sensory problems are twin siblings of repetitive behaviors: both are "unconnected processes" inside the brain of autistic children. There is a difference, though. Repetitive behaviors are connected to the "attractive" or "positive" center of the children's brain, but sensory problems are connected to the "repulsive" or "negative" center of the children's brain. We have seen how to modulate in additional skills into the repetitive behaviors of autistic children. For sensory problems, the direction of modulation goes in the opposite direction: instead of starting with the negative sensory stimuli, we should start with happy and fun events for the children, and only then gradually modulate in those problematic stimuli.

Once more connections are established inside the brains of these children, repetitive behaviors are gone, so do sensory problems. Sensory problems should never be the focus of worry of the parents. Developing more connections, enriching the life of these children with varieties of happy and fun experiences should be the focus of attention of the parents. Saturate the brain of your children with happy and fun events and skills, and they will develop enough positive connection points to divert the energy away for their isolated/unconnected sensory processes.

12. Verbalizing too early

Of course verbalizing is a good thing, per se. What's not good is to divert all your energy and resources into teaching your children to verbalize, when they have not yet built up the foundation of their visual-manual skills. You build the visual-manual foundation of your children, their verbal skills will come. You neglect to build their visual-manual foundation, they will be crippled in their verbal skills.

That also means to teach your children to read, before you teach them to talk.

I can try to teach about Fourier Transforms and Renormalization of Quantum Fields to a non-technical audience. They might achieve to memorize some equations and may even pass some multiple-choice exams with good grades. But that does not mean they have truly mastered these subjects or that they will succeed when confronted with a brand-new set of problems. The same is true with the verbal skills of autistic children. Only a solid foundation in visual-manual skills can guarantee a solid development of verbal skills.

13. Socializing too early

Again, of course all parents want their children to socialize. What's not good is to divert all energy and resources into teaching your children to socialize, when they have not yet built up the foundation of their visual-manual skills. You build the visual-manual foundation of your children, their social skills will come. You neglect to build their visual-manual foundation, they will be crippled in their social skills.

14. Usage of drugs

Contrary to what people might expect, I am not against usage of drugs. But drugs should not become a tool for placing the blames on the children. The children are perfectly fine.

Drugs alleviate some of the issues of autism. But they don't address the root problems. You won't solve autism or achieve to develop your children by using drugs.

15. Lack of one-on-one fun time

Children on the spectrum crave to be treated as equals. They are smart enough to realize that parents are shared resources: they know they need to share the attention of their parents with others (e.g.: other siblings, or parent's jobs, etc.) However, undivided attention on a one-on-one basis should happen on a regular basis. It is not hard to understand the term "one-on-one": it means only two people: you and your child. Don't get anybody else into your interaction with your child. You need to provide 100% of your attention to your child, from time to time. Also, 100% means 100%, there is no room any kind of distraction.

I am closer to my daughter, and my wife is closer to my son. However, from time to time we do hold father-son day and mother-daughter day. I would go out and have fun on a one-on-one basis with my son. Same thing between my wife and my daughter. You cannot expect a close bonding between a parent and a child, if you don't provide opportunities for one-on-one interaction.