West Coast Greetings… West Coast Belief
West Coast Greetings… West Coast Belief

West Coast Greetings… West Coast Belief

From What’s Not Allowed? A Family Journey with Autism p. 247. Photo: Leslie Bryan

My son Erik spoke those words on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, April 2016. His message was simple: this autism journey is shared by you, our caregivers. You shape the clay early on. If you believe in us, we believe in ourselves.

I hold these truths close to me, my son’s words for his audience. And I do my best to apply them. Case in point, that very speech.

Six weeks before Erik spoke on Parliament Hill, I was asked whether he’d be interested in becoming a guest speaker. Never! was my immediate thought. He wouldn’t be interested… couldn’t be. He could never do that…get up there in front of hundreds of people and speak with clarity and confidence. He could barely manage a class presentation, let alone a public rally. So I nearly dismissed the whole thing. Until my morning shower.

Yes, a morning shower changed everything. I call the shower my “think tank.” It’s where I can’t be reached yet where clarity often finds me. Maybe it’s the effect of hot water and steam. Perhaps it’s the cleanse. I’m not sure, but I do know that on that day, I entered thinking “no way” and stepped out knowing that there was a way. I exited with a plan. 

Erik Will Surprise You

The way forward unfolded over the weeks to follow, and Erik talks about this evolution in his speech. His mother became his believer, not because she was convinced he could do it, but because of four words her father had spoken to her at the time of diagnosis: “Erik will surprise you.”

My father ignited belief in me, and I passed the torch to Erik. Belief is both contagious and transformative.

Fast forward to present-day Erik. He drives a car to and from his volunteer work placements. He drives a car. This, too, was the product of a shower: doubt, displaced by a purposeful plan and an infusion of belief. If you believe in me, I believe in me. If you think I can do it, I think I can do it. And he did it. He does it, daily.

All of this brings me to the practical part of the equation: the “now what?” in the “what” (belief), “so what?” (transformative) “now what?” (what we can do about it) trio.

How can caregivers show belief?

I went to the source and I asked Erik. Here’s what he told me. I’ve reworded his reply, but the thoughts are his. 

Here’s how parents and others supporting those with autism can show belief—and effect change:

1. Advice – Give me practical advice and then show me how I can use it to improve, grow and change. This is how we approached speaking on the Hill. We had a plan and we practiced in many small steps. So by the time I gave my speech, I felt like “this is what I do.” It felt normal. The same for driving.

2. Timeline – Help me create a timeline that works for me, not one that works against me. Everything is going to take longer for me to achieve, but that’s okay, I’ll get there. Learning to drive took me two years, not eight months. But I did it. Giving me time to unfold is a form of belief.

3. Good throw. Good catch. – Ask me which teaching methods work best for me and then teach me that way—the  way I learn best. Visually. Small steps. Repetition. Extra time. A model of the end project. These are ways you can show me that you think I can do it… by enabling my learning.

4. Two-way Street – Show me how you learn from me—maybe a talent, a quality, an outlook that you admire in me and would like to develop in yourself. Remind me of a talent that is mine in particular and that I’m known for. This makes me feel appreciated and skilled. Show me that we are equal partners and equal learners.

5. Statement of Belief – Give me a statement of belief that I can live by. My poppa once said to my parents, “Erik will surprise you,” and we say this nearly every day. 

As I read and reread Erik’s advice, I understand that his journey is also my own. And that his words have become my guiding light for nurturing him—and myself. Erik’s are words that we can all live by.

“When someone shows me they believe in me, I feel differently about myself. If you think I can do it, then I think I can do it.”

From the cover of Autism Matters Magazine, Fall 2016. Sketch: Erik Hedley

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