Presuming Competence in Your Child: Four Tips for Parents to Share with Providers

When I met three-year-old “Tim”, he had such difficulty with spoken language and controlling his body that it was difficult to tell how much he could comprehend of the world around him. He couldn’t show his understanding with words—or even with movements. A decade later, he has learned to type on an iPad and uses it to write beautiful prose and poetry, in the process revealing remarkable intelligence and wit.

Repeatedly witnessing the remarkable progress of children such as Tim has helped me to understand the importance of the second on my Ten Things to Ask of Professionals working with your Special Needs Child: Presume competence. That is, assume children are capable even if they cannot (yet) show it.

In autism and certain other conditions, children often have neurological processing differences that affect how they communicate and move their bodies. This, in turn, affects the ways they let us know what they are feeling and thinking. Frequently people take children’s outward behaviors at face value and presume that they are functioning at lower levels than they really are. But those of us who work to help such children are coming to understand that presuming competence is essential to a child’s happiness and wellbeing. As a parent, you should encourage everyone on your child’s team to understand and follow these important points:

1. Be aware that our child’s sensory or motor profile may affect his ability to show you what he knows or what he can do. Please don’t assume based on what you see that he doesn’t know the right answer or isn’t attempting to cooperate. Rather, give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he understands but needs the appropriate supports to be able to show you.

2. Confer with experts as soon as possible to help our child communicate.  Alternative and augmentive communication (AAC) is a sub-specialty in the field of speech and language therapy. Not all speech and language therapists have specialized training for children with severe challenges to spoken language.

3. Don’t talk about our child’s deficits in front of her.  While it might be difficult to engage our child in the back and forth flow of communication, please remember that she hears everything you say. Comments about her strengths are always welcomed. When you are with her, please focus on positive communication with her even though she may not be responding in a typical manner.

4. All children, including ours, need time to build relationships of trust in order to risk making mistakes.  Your encouragement and reassuring presence will help him stay calm and alert.  While it may not always be easy to communicate with our child, over time, and with your help, we can all discover what his intentions and ideas are. The first step is building a relationship of trust in which he feels safe to take chances and persevere to show us all he knows.

Not long ago, I worked with a mother whose daughter’s teachers insisted that the girl suffered from serious intellectual deficits. But the mother had faith in her child, and insisted that her daughter could read. Through sheer will and insistence, this mom convinced the school district to place her daughter in mainstream classroom, with the same academic goals as any classmate. Two years later, intelligence testing showed the girl to be functioning in the superior range of intellectual abilities. If the mother hadn’t presumed competence, nobody would have even known.

Ido Kedar, an autistic and brilliant teen says it best: I want people to know that I have an intact mind.” Encouraging educators and others to assume the same of your son or daughter will help insure that your child is recognized, heard, and understood.

Do you have any questions or comments? I invite you to write them below and visit my Facebook page where I post supportive resources for parents and professionals.

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Dr. Mona, Thank you for more great tips! I can’t wait to share these with other parents. Your blog posts are always so timely with our current issues.

Thanks Joni, so glad they are helpful!