Small, a great destination

Rework - Why Grow?
Illustration from Rework

In their book Rework, the guys from 37signals make a compelling argument for staying small in a chapter called “Why grow?” My favorite quote from that chapter:

Small is not just a stepping stone. Small is a great destination in itself.

And this isn’t just empty talk from someone trying to sell books, this is how they actually run the company. From a recent article on Fast Company, here is 37signals CEO Jason Fried (@jasonfried):

I’m a fan of growing slowly, carefully, methodically, of not getting big just for the sake of getting big. I think that rapid growth is typically of symptom of… there’s a sickness there. There’s a great quote by a guy named Ricardo Semler, author of the book Maverick. He said that only two things grow for the sake of growth: businesses and tumors. We have 35 employees at 37signals. We could have hundreds of employees if we wanted to–our revenues and profits support that–but I think we’d be worse off.

This is kind of a follow up to yesterday’s post, Living life for a living, which got me thinking again about the 37signals philosophy. What it really comes down to, it seems, is the difference between a businessperson – who wants to run a business that makes money; big is better – and a person in business – who wants to build a business around something they do; the bigger the business gets, the less they get to do what they got into business for in the first place.

Different – and normal – are in the eye of the beholder

What does it mean to be normal? What does it mean to be different? These are big questions in any discussion about autism or other disabilities. The term “disabilities” itself begs this question, since a disability is defined based on “normal”.

I like what Kristin has to say on the matter (the emphasis is hers):

“Normal” is such a complicated word.

We each grow up with our own entrenched ideas of what normal is, which means, of course, there is no such thing. Yet the world loves to pretend like there is—if normal doesn’t exist, exactly, then at least there’s a perceived ideal normalcy that we should all strive for, or even pretend to have grasped….

There is no “normal”—at least not in a societal sense—and we need to stop pretending there is. We need to stop talking about it, observing the world through it, and assuming it as we report on and read the news.

Most of all, we actively need to teach our kids to identify the falacies embedded in “normal,” and see through to the other side…. We need to embrace rather than hide what makes us different. We need to prove to the world that what they see as “messed up” can be a very beautiful thing.

What I like even more is that Kristin is not talking about autism here, or any other disability for that matter. These are not questions limited to autism and autism awareness, they are questions for us as a whole.

Different, as Kristin says, is the new normal. Time to get used to it.

Autistic kids – and their parents – deserve to have fun, too

Many parents of children diagnosed as autistic spend a large majority – sometimes all – of their “free” time trying to make their child “more normal” or “less autistic”, and not enough time on letting their child just be a kid. This is also true – maybe more so – at school, where the focus is often a single-minded (dare I say, “autistic”) dedication to implementing an IEP.

Many IEPs are so focused on making kids normal that they deny kids the chance to be part of a normal environment. It is not uncommon, for example, for schools to take autistic students on “life skills” field trips to a grocery store or McDonald’s while their classmates take a trip to a museum or other entertaining – and educational – locale. Life is for living, and this is as true for our autistic children as it is for our non-autistic children.

In her book Get Out, Explore, and Have Fun!: How Families of Children With Autism or Asperger Syndrome Can Get the Most Out of Community Activities, autism parent and blogger Lisa Jo Rudy addresses these questions, that really fall into two distinct categories:

  1. Why should you “get out, explore, and have fun” with your autistic child?
  2. How do you do this?

The first two chapters of the book should be required reading for all parents of children who receive a diagnosis of autism, that’s how important her message is in answering the “why” question. If autistic kids are never given a chance to experience life, how will we – or they – ever know what they want from life?

Lisa spends the bulk of the book exploring the “how” of getting out. As the parent of an 18 year old autistic son who has gotten out there, explored, and had fun, I can say that she has done an excellent job compiling not only lists of possible activities, but the good and potential bad of each as well as tips on how to make sure the experiences are valuable ones.

What I most appreciated in the “how” section is that she doesn’t sugar coat anything. Far from being pessimistic about things, she is simply honest about what you are likely to experience. She also reminds us to be realistic in what we expect of our kids, and of those we interact with “out there”. Even though the “why” applies equally to all kids, the challenges of the “how” will vary. Autism is, after all, a spectrum, and the experiences parents will have when they “get out” will cover a wide spectrum as well.

Only parents can appreciate the challenges they will face with their own kids in trying to get out there. My only suggestion here is that you lean toward stretching your boundaries, and your kid’s, by trying something just a little bit harder than what you think you can do. You will find that this can be hard work, but you will also see that it is worth every ounce of sweat you put into it.

If you are the parent of a young – or not so young – autistic child, you should get and read this book. And give a copy to your child’s teacher, their IEP case worker, the IEP team.

Life is for living, even for an autistic child, and this book reminds us why this is true and how to make it happen.

Devote more time to your kid’s strengths than their shortcomings

Consider this opening paragraph from the book Strengths Finder 2.0:

At its fundamentally flawed core, the aim of almost any learning program is to help us become who we are not. If you don’t have natural talent with numbers, you’re still forced to spend time in that area to attain a degree. If you’re not very empathic, you get sent to a course designed to infuse empathy into your personality. From the cradle to the cubicle, we devote more time to our shortcomings than to our strengths.

Any autism parent – any parent, for that matter – will likely recognize that this is exactly what we tend to do with our autistic children. In fact, it is what is expected of us, to try to make our autistic children into someone they are not.

But that doesn’t mean that is what we should be doing.

Lead – don’t manage – your (autistic) kids

Autonomy  –  Mastery  –   Purpose

Aimed at adults who have already heard the starting gun, these are three things that Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) and Dan Pink (Drive) have written about in terms of meaningful work and a meaningful life. These are also incredibly important parts of growing up.

As infants and toddlers, the focus for kids is to learn, to master things like walking, language, and play. There is not a whole lot of autonomy, nor is there any long term purpose.

As kids grow through adolescence they start to accept, and demand, more and more autonomy. If they are lucky enough to discover a passion that demands all of their attention – sports, academics, music, writing – they will seek out mastery. Some will begin to see their purpose in life, and begin to move in that direction.

As teenagers and young adults our kids become completely autonomous – within bounds, of course – and are free to pursue their purpose and continued journey toward mastery.

As I hinted at last time, though, parents – especially parents of autistic kids – sometimes have a tendency to focus too much on the “mastery” part and defer, sometimes indefinitely, the “autonomy” and “purpose” parts. For parents, it is all too easy – and tempting – to try to control, to MANAGE, our kids’ lives through each of these various stages. To decide what our kids should be interested in, what their purpose is. To make decisions for them, and not allow them the autonomy they crave. (“He’s only 10 years old, he can’t make a decision like that for himself.”)

Much more difficult – and, in my opinion, ultimately more rewarding – is for parents to be a LEADER for their kids. To observe and discover what our kids strengths are, what they are interested in, and encourage mastery in that. Even if it something we don’t understand or that we would never do. To accept the purpose they discover for their life, and encourage them to live that purpose even if it seems “stupid” to us.

To always challenge our kids to reach just a little too far instead of always pulling them back from the edge.

Don’t let autism stop you from being a parent

Autism blogger Lisa Jo Rudy once challenged parents to “quit autism for just one day.”

Your child with autism may always be autistic, but there are places and circumstances in which it either doesn’t matter – or in which your child’s special talents make autism irrelevant. Whether it’s at the beach, in the woods, at a concert, or creating a work of art – just for one day – go somewhere where autism doesn’t matter.

Just for one day, quit being the parent of a child with autism. And become just a plain, ordinary, loving, proud parent.

Everything I’ve learned about parenting an autistic child can be boiled down to an incredibly simply stated idea (provided to me by a fellow autism dad): Parenting is parenting.

My response to Lisa’s challenge reflects this attitude:

Just one day? Every day should be like that. At the very least, every day should start like that. You can’t always control how a day will end up, but only you can control how your day starts.

I am the parent of a trampolinist. I am the parent of a horse-back rider (equestrian?) I am the parent of two pianists. I am the parent of two high school students. I am the parent of two avid gamers. I am the parent of an autistic son and an NT son.

I am, to use your words, “just a plain, ordinary, loving, proud parent.”

Every day.

No doubt parenting an autistic child can be hard. But don’t let that turn you into an “autism case manager”. Don’t let it stop you from being a parent. A plain, ordinary, loving, proud parent.

Every day.

Take the time to learn from your kids

I have had a lot of teachers throughout my life. Some taught me because they were paid to, some because they were supposed to, and some because they wanted to. Many of the best teachers in my life, though, had no idea that they were teaching me. (Or, perhaps more accurately, that I was learning from them.)

At the top of this list of unintentional teachers are kids, especially my own.

When the relationship between parents and their kids is discussed, “parent as teacher” is a common interpretation. There is no doubt that parents need to teach their children. But if we only see ouselves as teachers, whether it is because we are supposed to or because we really want to, we are missing out on some of the greatest learning opportunities we will ever be given the chance to experience.

This is especially true if your kids are different from you, or different from what you expected them to be. For example, if you are a “jock” and your kid a “geek” ( or vice versa). Or your kid is disabled and you’re not.

If you are a parent, take the time to learn from your kids. You’ll be amazed at what they can teach you.