Utilizing (versus minimizing) your child's differences

by Tali Berman on 23 July 2013
Tali Berman is an autism specialist, developmental play expert and author of “Play to Grow! Over 200 Games To Help Your Special Child Develop Fundamental Social Skills” She is also the founder/leader of the "Autism Empowerment Telesummit," gathering top autism experts on her elite panel, reaching thousands of families around the globe. You can learn more at: www.meirautism.org.
Have you ever heard the term "trying to close the gap"? This is a term I hear often and it refers to closing the gap between a special child and his/her peers. While I certainly support the idea of helping every child to be able to fully integrate and succeed with other children his/her age, I think the goal of "closing the gap" poses a particular problem. With this goal in mind and with the best intentions in the world, parents may try to minimize the differences between their child and other children.
I am here to make a stand for a different goal.  
Instead of focusing on minimizing the differences, what if we focused on
identifying and utilizing differences as a way to help each child actualize his or her own unique potential? What this means is shifting your focus from trying to help your child be just like all the others to helping your child more fully bring his unique self to the world around him.
This may seem like a subtle shift in focus -- but the impact can be profound.
Doing this allows your child to flourish in a way that is unique to him and in my experience, children are more inspired to grow when they are truly "seen." So, not only does it feel better for you and your child -- but it also promotes deeper and more meaningful growth.
You might be thinking, "This sounds great theoretically -- but how do I identify and utilize my child’s differences to help her have optimal growth"? 
Great question! Read below for some key ways to do this:
Learning style: Many children on the autism spectrum have a delay in audio processing and are stronger visual learners (Click here to read a study about this). By identifying and utilizing this learning style (versus trying to minimize it) you can help your child learn by using more visual strategies. For example, using picture/word cards as you explain to your child what will be happening that day, new concepts or complex social situations. Most of us are visual learners (I have to see a new word in the dictionary in order for me to remember it -- hearing it is not enough). Utilizing this difference can be a critical key in helping your child actualize his/her own potential. 
Learning Environment: Many children on the autism spectrum also have a sensory processing disorder, making it very difficult to filter out external stimulation. This can result in your child being easily overwhelmed in a highly stimulating environment. What typically happens is that your child is so busy managing his/her sensory system that he has very little energy left to learn or interact. By identifying and utilizing this difference, you can make choices about the environments that will help your child grow. For example, you can go to the local park/pool/mall during off hours when there are fewer children and less commotion. You can also spend one-on-one time with your child in a closed room during focused play/learning time. This down time can be like a sensory haven for your child and allow him/her to rest and put his energy into growing in other areas.
Identifying and utilizing unique motivations: Your child might need a bit more inspiration to do what is challenging for him (such as learning cognitive skills, communicating, engaging in turn taking games, etc.). You can help your child be motivated and engaged if the learning experience is grounded in his unique motivations. For example, if you are trying to teach your child counting or adding and he LOVES cars, use toy cars in a counting or adding game. If you are trying to help your child play simple turn taking games and he LOVES dinosaurs, make a simple "memory" card game from dinosaur pictures you find on the Internet.
We all want to be loved and honored for our unique selves and our children are no different. Something as seemingly small as shifting your intention with your child from "closing the gap" to "actualizing his/her own unique potential" can make a tremendous impact and allow you to identify and utilize what is unique about your child. Often, it is these very differences -- the ones that are minimized when trying to "close the gap" that are the very keys to your child’s exponential growth.