The Sum of Ten Things: Your Power of Choice

Excerpted from Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, 3rd edition, by Ellen Notbohm (pub date 01 June 2019, Future Horizons)
Available in English and Spanish

“I had no choice.”

When I hear this declaration from parents, it’s usually tinged with dejection, often fueled by melancholy, fear, anger. I just did an Internet search for the phrase and got 23 million results. That’s a lot of anguish, desperation, bleakness. It can swamp us when we reach junctures where we feel we have no choice but to take action against our schools, leave spouses/partners, cut off family members, resort to medication. Or we simply take no action because we feel we have no choices. (Doing nothing is a choice. Sometimes it may even be a sound choice.)

The feeling of having no choice can be as immobilizing as having too many choices. And when I search the Internet for “I always have choices,” I get only 62,000 results, a tiny fraction of the “no choice” population.

When we say we have no choice, we most often mean we have no palatable choices. No attractive or appealing choices. No acceptable or practical choices. Or that we’ve exhausted all the choices we’ve been able to identify.

But crummy choices are choices nonetheless. Here’s an example. A common no-choice conundrum for parents of autistic children is the family member or members who do not—choose not to—understand autism’s effect on the child. They often voice strident criticism of behaviors, impatience with sensory challenges, refusal to modify methods of communication or to otherwise accommodate and respect the child’s needs. “We have a few family members who crush my son’s self-esteem every time they are around him,” a parent will tell me. “My only choice is to ease them out of our lives, quietly.”

This parent’s choice is understandable, justifiable and even logical. But it is by far not the only choice. S/he could also choose to:

  • Confront family members aggressively. “Your refusal to accept how Liam’s autism affects him is damaging him, therefore we will allow you no further contact with him.”
  • Confront family members firmly but evenly. “I am sure you love Liam, but I don’t think you realize how much your constant criticism hurts him. Until you can respect how Liam’s autism affects him, it’s in his best interest that he not be around you.”
  • Continue to attend family gatherings and confront each instance separately. “That’s the second time in fifteen minutes you’ve criticized Liam for something he can’t control. If you do it again, we will leave immediately.”
  • Take the passive-aggressive approach, cutting off contact with no explanation or communication.
  • Ask a sympathetic family member to intervene with the offending members.
  • Ask family members to attend family counseling.
  • Ask family members to accept information about Liam’s autism from a professional, such as his doctor, teacher or therapist.
  • Ask the offending family members to propose a solution. “I can’t allow your continued put-downs of Liam. What actions are you willing to take to change things?”

With a little brainstorming, the “only choice” becomes “many choices.” Seldom is the instance in which we truly have no choices.

“If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is a compromise,” warns author and composer Robert Fritz. Our fear of making the wrong choices often hovers over us with the menace of storm clouds, threatening to drown our well-being and leave us as the sodden pulp of despair. We turn away from the full range of choices when we do not like the choices. And indeed it will sometimes be true that all the choices will be abysmal. But learning to recognize the full range of choices available in any situation builds our confidence that we can make the right choices, even from a slate of options that forces us to hold our noses.

And that ability to constantly evaluate and choose gives us ultimate control over our lives. We lose a large part of our fear of making poor choices when we realize that the consequences of most choices aren’t unalterable. We make the best choices we can with the resources available to us in that moment. The moment is ever-changing and so are many of our choices. Because of this, we can carry with us the assurance that regardless of how difficult the decision of the moment, the way things are today does not have to be the way things are tomorrow.

What could be a more inspiring thought than that?

My children’s autism and ADHD endowed them with brains that learned differently than so-called typical children. For the most part, we enjoyed amicable and productive relationships with our schools, but we nearly always parted ways on one subject—testing. I railed against tests so poorly written they amounted to the equivalent of a foreign language to my autistic son. I threw them back at the schools, noting how riddled they were with obscure vocabulary that exceeded grade level, garbled facts, irrelevant distractions. “Plays into every weakness my students have,” fumed one special educator who agreed with me. “Test” became a dirty four-letter word in our house, our own personal profanity.

So was it ironic or was it serendipitous and redemptive that what crystalized my thoughts on the power of choice came to me in the form of … a test preparation handout? One fine day during Bryce’s second year of college, an instructor distributed a sheet of tips and strategies for passing a multiple-choice test. I gave it a once-over and drew the parallel immediately: Parenting a child with autism is like having to pass an everlasting multiple-choice test.

Reading my son’s multiple-choice study guide, I realized that most of the test-taking strategies and skills were a way of life for me, thought processes I had cultivated along the terrain of my children’s developmental odyssey. I had developed the tools to identify a broad range of choices in any situation, and the mental flexibility to know there were probably yet more choices to consider. Having Plans B, C and D at the ready became second nature to me, and consequently, I rarely felt stuck or stumped in nasty or problematic situations.

This is the power of choice—the fusion point where recognizing the full diversity of opportunity joins forces with the ability to choose. These are the ultimate power tools. They are simple and timeless and perpetually abundant and free for the taking. . .

© 2019 Ellen Notbohm. Reproduction in any manner whatsoever without permission of author is prohibited.

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