Building on our strengths

All too often I see people focusing on their own personal weaknesses or shortcomings.  Worse still, many parents do the same thing with their kids and many employers with their employees.   I’ve often wondered why this is, why the focus on negativity when we, and the people around us, all have such incredible strengths to appreciate and use.

This focus on the negative is the most blatant when it comes to working with those with disabilities.  As the father of an autistic son, I’ve seen this first hand.  In a recent interview with WNET, Temple Grandin has the following to say on the matter:

Grandin is good at thinking in photorealistic pictures, but she is unable to grasp simple concepts such as numbers. Grandin, who flunked out of algebra in school, said teachers approach her all the time seeking advice: “How do I get the pictures out of my student’s head?” or “I have a student who is board stiff in algebra, but great in geometry–what should I do?” Grandin said a creative teacher would give the student geometry to practice after algebra class.

People with autism have uneven skills, and it is important to build up their strengths, according to Grandin. “It’s okay for kids to have obsessions. If all a kid wants to do is draw trains, then let the kid draw trains. Show the kid how to draw a train station.” To Grandin’s way of thinking, a fascination with trains may reveal a talent for drawing or graphic design, or lead to a job connected with the railroad industry.

“Parents and teachers should also be asking the question, “What are they going to do when they grow up?” It is a shame for a kid who has the potential to be a computer programmer to end up washing dishes or working at a convenience store. Grandin said what is so sad is that these children can contribute to society–just as she has–but that some are made to feel that their contributions are not welcomed or appreciated and therefore become totally dependent on family or social services for support.

It’s OK for kids to have obsessions? Not something you hear every day.  But consider this story – paraphrased from a story I heard on the radio – about a boy and his obsession with snakes (which I originally posted here):

A boy with Asperger’s Syndrome is focused on snakes. He knows nearly everything there is to know about snakes, and can bring snakes into just about any story or subject. If he can’t make it about snakes, he doesn’t care about it. As it turned out, as a cumulative school project this boy had to prepare a report about the Battle of Gettysburg. The purpose of the project was to teach research and presentation skills. You guessed it – no snakes, the boy didn’t care and wasn’t doing anything on the project.

Until, that is, the adults in the bunch came up with the idea, “What if we let him do his report on The Snakes at the Battle of Gettysburg?” To make a long story short, this got the boy’s attention and he dove right in. To do the project, he had to learn as much or more about the battle and the geography, etc., as any other kid. His project was so good, and so unique, that he was asked to present his project to the entire school. Everyone wanted to hear the presentation about the snakes at the Battle of Gettysburg, and everyone thought it was great.

The kicker here is this: Before this presentation, everyone avoided this boy because all he wanted to talk about was snakes.

Some parting words on the subject of passion and obsession from Luke Jackson, written several years ago in his book Freaks, Geeks, and Asperger’s Syndrome when he was 13 years old.

Q: When is an obsession not an obsession?
A: When it is about football.

How unfair is that?! It seems that our society fully accepts the fact that a lot of men and boys ‘eat, sleep and breathe’ football and people seem to think that if someone doesn’t, then they are not fully male. Stupid!

Girls are lucky enough to escape this football mania but I have noticed that teenage girls have to know almost every word of every song in the charts and who sang what and who is the fittest guy going, so I suppose an AS girl (or a non-AS one) that had interests other than that is likely to experience the same difficulties as a non-football crazy boy.

I am sure that if a parent went to a doctor and said that their teenage son wouldn’t shut up about football, they would laugh and tell them that it was perfectly normal. It seems as if we all have to be the same.

5 thoughts on “Building on our strengths

  1. “It seems that our society fully accepts the fact that a lot of men and boys ‘eat, sleep and breathe’ football and people seem to think that if someone doesn’t, then they are not fully male. Stupid!”

    Nothing truer could be written. Every Monday at work, the same guys ask me if I saw the game with so and so. Every week I say I don’t watch football and every week they give me the same “deer in the headlights” look. Talk about perserveration! Same goes for golf. Everyone is just flabbergasted that I don’t play it and I don’t care to watch it. I always tell them I left sports behind in high school because I’m tired of answering the same question over and over. My response is meant to be a slight be rude and condescending. I answer like that because I have hopes they will stop asking me the same question again and again but it never works.


  2. A great read on what to do with obsessions — how to leverage them — is Paula Kluth’s “Just Give Him the Whale!”
    …for which I think the publisher should have obtained a testimonial from Jerry Newport (the “whale” in the real story behind the film “Mozart and the Whale”) :-).


  3. @CS

    Though I sometimes watch the weekend sports, I don’t always. When someone asks me about something I didn’t see, a good response seems to be, “No, I didn’t. What happened?”

    After they give me the quick rundown of what happened, many times they follow up with, “What were you doing this weekend?” Which gives me a chance to share my passions and obsessions.


  4. @Phil

    Thanks for the recommendation. From some of the descriptions and reviews on Amazon, it looks like this could be a good resource not just for autistic children, but for all children. I’ll post a follow up once I’ve had a chance to read the book.


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