Voices From the Spectrum #30: Daniel Wendler on Socialization
Daniel Wendler is an author, public speaker, and advocate for people that (like him) are on the autism spectrum. He’s spoken about autism and social skills at conferences around the country, and is the author of a variety of social skills guides including Improve Your Social Skills. This week Daniel shared his advice for parents trying to support their autistic children both at home and in school.
How can parents of children or adults on the spectrum utilize your book Improve Your Social Skills?
More than anything, I believe Improve Your Social Skills can provide hope. Many people on the Autistic spectrum believe that they simply can’t learn social skills — that social interaction is simply something that they will never be able to learn. But by breaking down the various social skills in my book into easy-to-understand, step-by-step instructions, and using metaphors and examples to add clarity, I give readers the opportunity to see that they really can learn social skills. It’s kind of like those drawing books for total beginners — by the second or third page, you’re already creating little doodles and proving to yourself that you can be an artist after all!
Of course, nobody is going to master social skills after reading my book once. But if my book makes someone 1% better at social skills, then the person has proven to themselves that getting better at social skills is POSSIBLE. And so instead of giving up and being hopeless, maybe they go out and read another book, and get another 1% better. Maybe they join a social group, and get another 1% better. Maybe they sign up for therapy, and get another 1% better. Eventually, all of those 1%s start to compound, and momentum starts to build, and the person finds that they are achieving social success they never dreamed could be possible before.
You’ve mentioned on your website that you experienced social struggles growing up. What advice do you have for the younger you?
During the times that I struggled, the thing that would help me the most was finding just one friend to stand by me. It’s not that important for everyone to like you, or to be the life of the party. As long as you have just one buddy in your corner, you will be amazed how much more confident and happy you feel. So I think my advice for my younger self would be to look for just one friend — that in the times I felt alone and rejected, don’t worry about what the group felt, but just try to find one person who would accept me for me.
What issues did/do you face as someone on the spectrum pursuing higher education?
Truthfully, I don’t think that my diagnosis held me back as I pursued higher education, although that was largely the result of there being extraordinarily kind and wise educators along the way who were able to look past my challenges to the potential beneath. Whether it was admissions staff that may have looked past some of my quirks to professors who were willing to accommodate my handwriting and occasional outburst, my academic success was greatly supported by educators who became my advocates.
How did you learn about your diagnosis?
My parents had noticed for a while that I had significant social and behavioral struggles, but this was back when Autism was not as well known and services were not as widely available. So it was not until just before I started high school that my parents took me to a pediatric psychologist who specialized in Autism/Asperger’s. She did extensive testing on me and gave me my Asperger’s diagnosis.
What are some of the most damaging misconceptions neurotypical people have about autism?
That we don’t care about relationships. People with autism desire relationships and intimacy just as much as anyone else does. For us, relationships or intimacy might look different than they do for a neurotypical, and due to our social skills deficits, it might be harder for us to be successful in relationships. But the need for connection is a human need, not a neurotypical need. So people on the spectrum are just as hungry for connection and just as capable of deep love, affection and empathy — we just need to be given some additional supports to help us navigate the tricky interpersonal dynamics, and some extra grace to accept us despite our quirks and challenges.
What mistakes do autism advocates make?
I think there can be too much of a focus on children with Autism, and not enough attention given to adults on the Autistic spectrum. Obviously, children are crucially important, and many interventions are most effective when applied early. But I know many autistic adults that have aged out of the school system and are struggling to find their way in the world, and I wish there were more resources available for them. I especially wish there was a way to mentor adults with autism to become the leaders for the next generation of autism — providing them with purpose would go a huge way towards helping them find their way in life.
What advice do you have for parents trying to raise their children with a positive autistic identity?
First, I would encourage you to not be afraid of telling them about their diagnosis. While many parents are afraid to tell their children that they have autism for fear that the child will adopt a negative view of themselves, the fact is that most autistic children are already quite aware that they are different from the other kids and they struggle to fit in. And so the label of “autistic” might feel far more positive for the child than the label of “weirdo” or “reject” or “retard” that the other kids have given them. Of course, every autistic child is different, and every situation is different. But I would encourage you to recognize that while there is a cost to disclosing a diagnosis, there is also a cost to letting the child come to their own interpretation of their challenges.
Second, provide them with unconditional love and acceptance. Once as a young child, I was playing with my cat and the cat bit me. I told the cat, “I love you except when you bite me” and my Mom immediately told me, “That’s not how love works. You love someone even if you don’t like something they did.” And indeed, I never doubted that my parents loved me even when I had behavioral problems, meltdowns, etc.
So make sure that no matter what, you are able to provide your child with a sense that they are unconditionally loved and accept, even during their worst behavior. If you find yourself often becoming overwhelmed and yelling at your child or shaming them due to your anger, I would encourage you to seek therapy or a support group in order to help you process your own stress in another environment so you never take it out on your child.
Third, give your child opportunities to use their gifts and talents. It’s easy to focus on a child’s deficits or challenges. But make sure they are celebrated for what they can do, and given great encouragement to use their unique strengths and gifts. No matter how much support they need, a person with autism is always far more than their struggles. Help them to realize that.
Interested in hearing more from Daniel Wendler? Connect with him at his website: http://www.danielwendler.com/