This week I gave a presentation at work. It was part of a series called Secrets of Success, in which each employee in the company gets a turn to give a presentation on what they have personally learned about success. I was quite nervous about mine, as it was very personal, but I was pleased that it was well-received.
I had a hard time deciding what I would say for a while. I didn't know what I could say that would be different from what others had already presented. So I started thinking about other people I knew who were successful, and what I've learned from them that I could share. Suddenly, one particular person popped into my mind, and that choice laid out everything I would say, including a rather unconventional opening.
What follows is a text version of the presentation.
UPDATE: On June 9, 2010, this article was featured on the official Facebook page for Autism Speaks. I am truly humbled and appreciative of the many positive comments I have received, both on this blog and on Facebook. However, there has also been a little bit of misunderstanding about the intent of the piece. It is not intended to tell you how to “fix” your autistic child. It is simply about what I have learned about success as I have gone through (and continue to go through) this experience with my daughter. Thanks again, and to those who have autism or love someone who does, “Never give up, never surrender!”
Secrets of Successby Robert J. Walker (with apologies to Theodor Geisel)
What is success? Can anyone say?
Is it something you put on your résumé?
Is it big money? Is it great fame?
Is it a building adorned with your name?
We're always chasing success in this biz,
But how do we know what success really is?
There are lots of people who have lots to say,
And it's hard to know whose idea to obey.
So I said to myself, “Self, who can you ask?
Whose success is most up-to-the-task?”
Then finally it hit me. I knew who to call,
The person who'd be my guide through it all,
My guru, my teacher, my insightful sage!
I never thought she'd be four years of age!
My daughter is the most successful person I know, even though by typical standards she has accomplished far less in her life than most children her age. In order to understand why, you need to know a little more about her.
She has autism.
Autism is a neural development disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted, repetitive and obsessive behavior. It affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize. Autism belongs to a wider group of conditions called autism spectrum disorders (or ASDs), which include similar afflictions such as Asperger syndrome. ASDs affect about 1 in 110 people.
Autists frequently have overstimulated senses. A standard fluorescent light can seem like a strobe. A digital watch alarm might sound like a fire truck. A lightly-scented deodorant could smell like someone bathed in perfume. A mild seasoning may taste as strong as garlic or curry. A sweater might feel like bugs crawling on your skin.
Since many autistic children are non-verbal, they can't tell you about what's bothering them or express their needs. Because of this, they tend to behave in ways that are considered inappropriate much more frequently than their peers: screaming, throwing temper tantrums, biting, gouging, scratching, banging their heads and throwing themselves around. Many don't respond to their own names.
Some have low IQs. Others are highly intelligent, yet this intelligence can go unnoticed when they lack an effective way of communicating. Many will rarely smile, laugh, or even make eye contact; and many have few or no friends. Only 4% of autists are eventually able to maintain employment, live independently and have a meaningful relationship.
There is no known cure.
My daughter initially seemed like most other autistic children. When she wasn't screaming incoherently, she was quiet and withdrawn. She wouldn't respond to her name or look you in the eye, and she rarely smiled. You could tell that there were thoughts and feelings locked up in that little mind of hers, but she couldn't share them. She was a lonely island of human consciousness, and that made her frustrated and unhappy.
Now, despite all the challenges of autism, she is beating the odds. While her verbal ability is still significantly behind that of her peers, she is able to communicate many of her needs, wants and feelings. She smiles. She laughs. She makes eye contact and usually responds to her name. She knows her letters, counts to twenty and is even starting to learn to read and make friends. She still has a long way to go, but given the bleak outlook for most autistic children, her teachers are astounded at how well she is progressing.
I'm going to share with you the attributes and behaviors that she demonstrates that have contributed to her advancement, along with some secrets of success that we as her parents have learned along the way. I'm still working on these things, but I've found that the better I follow them, the more successful I become.
Don't you dare give up!
Despair is the true enemy of success. Many parents, when they learn their child has autism, give up on their dreams for that child's future. The child picks up on this, and they give up too. They become two years old forever, firmly entrenched among that 96% who never overcome it. The 4% that make it get there partly because their parents didn't give up on them, and they didn't give up on themselves. When there's nothing to gain by giving up and everything to gain by continuing to strive, for heaven's sake, keep striving!
Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.
Have the right perspective!
Nothing changes your perspective on life quite like having a child with a disability. I used to envy the parent who complained about how their kid just won't shut up. For a long time, we begged ours to say anything. So many seemed to take for granted all the simple things that their kids do that we would call little miracles in our daughter.
The right perspective helps you see what's really important and what's not. Perspective is vital to success, because how successful can we really say we are if we focus on all the wrong things? So sit back and take inventory of your work and your life, and ask yourself: What really matters? Why are you doing what you are doing?
Even if your priorities are straight, the right perspective will make your work and life better by giving you an appreciation of what you have. It is something that will buoy you up when things get tough.
Make it work!
Most kids with autism are very literal thinkers. They don't engage in pretend play and they often have trouble innovating or working around the problems they face.
One day, my wife saw my daughter pointing at the top of the refrigerator. Since she often likes people to name the things she points at, my wife looked up there and saw the kitchen timer, so she said “Clock.” She thought for a moment, then gave the word “red” in sign language. That's when my wife realized that she wanted some Doritos, which were in a bright red bag sitting on top of the refrigerator. Typical autistic children don't do this; when an attempt to communicate fails (if they try at all), they just melt down.
This is a simple example, but it has a really important lesson. When things don't work out the way we want, we sometimes “melt down.” We throw up our hands and start complaining instead of doing the productive thing, which is shutting up and figuring out how to make it work. Our minds are fascinating machines, with abilities that are still unmatched by technology. Put that mental horsepower to work on a solution instead of grousing about the problem!
Hunger for knowledge!
For some time, my daughter would frequently sit quietly in a corner with a toy (not so much playing with it as just holding it), seemingly oblivious to the world around her. Part of what helped break her out of this was our discovering her fascination with animals—not stuffed ones or animated ones; real ones. We took her to a park one day, and she saw someone walking their dog. Completely out of character for her, she ran up and wanted to pet the dog. She was completely entranced by the animal.
We took her to the zoo and she went bonkers over it. We took her to the aquarium and she went bonkers over that. We got her books with photographs of animals instead of drawings, and suddenly she was interested in books. This marked a turning point for her: she didn't sit passively anymore; she wanted to engage with the world and learn about it.
Our education shouldn't be restricted to our formal schooling. We should hunger after knowledge and be open to opportunities to learn and improve. Any day where you don't strive to learn is a day of wasted potential. Find an area where you want to improve, and get going!
Find a mentor!
My daughter would not have been able to make the progress that she has without our help, and we would not have known how to help her if we hadn't looked to others to guide us. Once you know how you want to improve, you can benefit from the guidance of another who is more experienced.
How do you choose a mentor? Think of the people you know who have the knowledge and experience that you're seeking. Accepting instruction and correction from someone else takes a bit of humility, so your mentor should be someone you trust and respect. Your mentor needs to be someone who cares about your advancement, someone who wants to see you succeed. Both you and your mentor must be willing to devote the time and effort that will be required for the mentoring process.
Once you've found someone who could be your mentor, ask! You might be nervous, but if they decline you're no worse off than you were before, and most people are flattered that someone wants to learn from their experience.
Success is not what you achieve. It is what you overcome.
It could be said that my daughter has not achieved much thus far in her four years of life. Most people can't understand what she says, she's still in diapers, and she still has a fair number of behavioral problems. But what she has overcome is more than many adults ever have.
Most of us aren't forced to face those kinds of challenges. We spend large parts of our lives without having to struggle against anything nearly so difficult. But if success is measured by what we overcome, that life of comparative ease may very well stand in our way of our success. Overcoming challenge causes us to grow in ways that just aren't possible when everything's easy. You can't coast towards excellence, you have to get out and push.
So if challenge isn't coming to you, you have to go seek it out. You'll sometimes have to do difficult things when you don't have to, things that are hard enough that failure is a real possibility. You'll work, you'll strain, you may even fall down and cry more than once, but you'll rise stronger, wiser and better than you were before.
My four-year-old daughter has shown me the way.
Success isn't something on your résumé.
It isn't big money. It isn't great fame.
It isn't a building adorned with your name.
Success isn't anything that you have done.
It's not what you achieve. It's what you overcome.