Perspectives ~ Diversability.

What is “diversability”? Could it be possible that a different kind of beauty exists and we are missing it in the midst of our daily rush?

By Tim & Laura Paauw
8/6/17

“A child with autism isn’t ignoring you.
They are waiting for you to enter their world.”

This is a phrase commonly seen on autism advocacy/awareness websites. It helps build understanding that someone with an autistic brain sees the world differently, viewed with heightened senses and commonly engaged in scenery that many other people miss.

Laura and I believe that we need to stop calling autism a “disability” and start calling it what it is, “diversability.” Perhaps our society should pause more often and reflect on the world surrounding us at a different level than the fast paced life many of us live. In doing so, we may begin to see the world differently too. Could it be possible that there is a different kind of beauty that many miss in their daily rush?

Here are a few perspectives that Laura and I have reflected on in the past summer months. You may agree or disagree, our goal is simply to challenge the ordinary perspective on behalf of our son Nolan.

Laura Paauw: 


The Upper Peninsula (UP) in Michigan is a different kind of beautiful. Some may think this beach scene is rather ugly. It is a place our family visits each year and cannot wait to return. I love looking past the shells, sticks, seaweed, scruffy pines and grass to find its underlying beauty. I think Nolan is such a “Yooper” at heart because he’s a different kind of beautiful too. When you look beyond his stims, language deficit, and lack of eye contact you’ll find his inner beauty. My favorite beach. My favorite boy twin. They’re made for each other because they’re both a different kind of beautiful.

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Tim Paauw:
My pondering thoughts after sitting at a picnic table with our son Nolan for a bit and just soaking up the moment and literally looking at the table together. I wondered what he thought and how he saw it:

Picnic Table
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder,
What is it that you see?

Is it the work of a creator’s design?
Or just another old knot of pine?

Can you feel the age within this wrinkled eye?
Or is it merely a board most will pass on by?

What is it that you observed today?
Better yet, what is it that gets in my way?

Open your eyes, pausing is key.
Look deep, and a brown-eyed beauty you’ll see.

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clouds

Nolan’s favorite place to be is outside. In fact, for a boy with very limited vocabulary, “Outside!” is a word we hear from him often. When we take the time to go for a walk with him and watch where his eyes wander in wonder, it always leads to a unique experience. Sometimes it may be the sunlight peeking through a cloud formation. At other times it takes a while to figure out what is fascinating him for the moment. The other day in our backyard he heard a woodpecker thumping on our tree. He spotted it first. His twin sister, Kathryn, and I figured it out a bit later and it ended up being quite an activity for a while. Kathryn said, “Nolan, I’ve never actually seen a woodpecker before! This is so cool!!!”

So, many would call his long and awkward pauses a disability. When we are trying to accomplish something and find ourselves frustrated by his gazing eye we may get tempted to believe this too. However, every moment we have attempted to step into his world we have been blessed. I would call that a diversability. Maybe our creative God is helping to remind us through people like Nolan to “Be still & know that I am God” as we find in Psalm 46:10.

The Impacts of “Noticing”

By Tim & Laura Paauw
June 14, 2017

1

This past week we have had a couple of scenes play out in our life with Nolan that I believe many with a “diversability” (diversability = experiences the world in a different manner than most people) have regularly. Allow us to paint the two scenes and our feelings that happened behind the scenes, after them we’ll provide a few helpful hints on how we’d play these scenes out differently in our “dream world”…

Scene one: Walking Around Our Block (Tim Paauw)

Last week I took my sons on a walk around our neighborhood block. It is a short distance, but a great chance to get fresh air and be together. The scene was a perfect Michigan early summer day, 75 degrees and sunny.

Neither of my boys can talk… yet. We walk in silence or I do most of the talking, but as we walk we exchange smiles and soak up the beauty all around us. These walking moments are some of the most peace-filled moments in my life and I look forward to the bonding with my boys.

Spring Break

On this particular day, we walked past a dad throwing a ball with his young son in their front yard. The dad was very excited to see Nolan and asked me, “How old is your son?”

“He is six years old turning seven this month,” I responded.

“Oh! My son is the same age. Would your boy like to join mine for some catch?”

“He can’t. He is autistic and hasn’t learned that skill yet,” I let him know (hoping my son wasn’t able to comprehend this comment and interpret it from his own dad as an insult).

“Okay, well I hope you guys enjoy your walk!” said the nice man.

As I walked away I fought back tears. Not because I need a baseball playing son. Not because I’d rather be doing something else besides our silent walk. Because I felt like I had somehow let Nolan down. When I stated it out loud in this context in front of him it felt like I was somehow implying my son was “worth less” than another six year old.  I leaned over to him and gave him a kiss on his forehead as we walked away. I whispered, “Nolan, you are my boy and there is nothing I look forward to in my week than walking around this block with you.”


Scene Two: Visiting the Splash Pad (Laura Paauw)

“Is he yours? What’s wrong? Is he handicapped?” These were the questions that were directed at me this week while I had my three kids at a splash pad. I really just wanted a day to play in the water. I was really excited that I had all of them interested in the same activity at the same time…and nobody was running away or throwing a tantrum. I didn’t want to explain autism, be an educator, or be Nolan’s advocate while at the splash pad. I just wanted to be a normal mom for once.

These questions weren’t asked by a child; they came from a grandma. I understand that adults and kids are curious when they see someone who is different than they are. I wish people would look for the similarities instead of the differences (“Wow! That boy looks like he really loves water and is having a great time! You guys both enjoy the same thing!”) I already know that Nolan stands out in a crowd. Help him blend in by seeing what a cool kid he is instead of pointing out his deficits.


 

Our Dream World: The Power of “I noticed” …

 “I noticed” that when a statement starts with that phrase it can impact how people will feel when they hear what you are going to say. We all want to be noticed at some level in life. When that comes across in a positive situation it can extend well beyond that moment. On the other hand, when we make a comment that implies we only noticed a negative attribute of someone it can also extend well beyond the moment.

When using a “I noticed” sentence it comes across more as an observable fact about someone. It reveals a layer of your thinking that can open up conversation (open dialogue for understanding) or a discussion (two sides aiming more at persuading each other). I believe conversations are the right avenue for learning and building awareness of someone’s diversability.

In scene one above, as a dad I cannot tell you how impressed I was that a neighbor “noticed” Nolan and invited him to join the game they were playing. This was SO heartwarming. I LOVE that the dad took a chance and initiated conversation. This is part of a dream world.

What I wish could have happened (on my end or the other dad’s end) is that we would have established something the six year old boys COULD DO together. We have a trampoline and swingset in our yard… had I been quicker on my feet I should have responded, “I notice that your boy loves being outside as much as mine. We’d love to have you guys over so they could jump on the trampoline together sometime!”

We missed an opportunity to turn an awkward interaction into an inclusive one. Had “I noticed” more quickly we could have come up with a common bond that would help two boys form a basic friendship. I regret missing that moment.


In scene two… imagine if the grandma had said to Laura, “I noticed that your son REALLY loves water! His smile makes the splash pad a more enjoyable place to be. What else does he like to do?”

That would have opened a door for a conversation rather than sentences that came across with tension that took away from a mom just wanting a normal day at the splash pad with her kids.

We are a couple who aims to be very transparent about Nolan’s challenges and diversabilities. We advocate for people to ask questions to understand. It helps us know people care. This week, we learned that the framing  and sometimes context of those questions can make a big impact as well.

So, if you are reading scene one and scene two and trying to sort through… “What went wrong? or “What would I do?” Here are my reflective suggestions:

  • Be curious. Noticing someone’s diversability is okay. They likely don’t want to be invisible or viewed as “less”
  • Figure out a way to take what you noticed and frame it into an encouraging observation and transform it into a way to relate / connect (example: “I couldn’t help but notice that your child loves shapes. My child loves the sandbox. Would your child like to draw shapes with mine in the sandbox?”)
  • Remember the old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t…”  This rings true with people that have diversabilities. If you see someone in a wheelchair don’t say, “I feel bad that you can’t join us in the game.”

 

 

Diversability, Rethinking Environments

Memorial Day Celebrations – By Tim Paauw
5/29/17parade2

Today is a special day where we remember many men and women who have served and sacrificed for the good of our country.  One of my favorite events for the day is a Memorial Day Parade that our school participates in each year. As a school principal, it is an honor be able to thank those who have served while seeing joy on so many faces as we go down the streets of our town. I have had this distinct privilege for seven years now. You can easily picture this beautiful event… candy being thrown everywhere, kids lining the streets waving and shouting, Red/White/Blue flags and outfits in abundance, the breeze whistling through the trees at perfect times to cool you off as you walk, all of our uniformed forces are present to add to the reminder of patriotic sacrifice including the police officers, firefighters, and every veteran military branch, and lastly the amazing airplanes flying over with eye-catching loops and cloud trails that form wonderful shapes in front of blue skies.  I LOVE THIS ENVIRONMENT AND IT GIVES ME CHILLS TO THINK OF OUR FREEDOM AS I TAKE EVERY STEP IN THE PARADE!!!  I want my children to grow up understanding this same blessing and celebrating it.

Now, re-imagine this environment from a diverse perspective. Imagine if your brain couldn’t accurately filter and process each detail separately and instead it felt as though all of it was happening AT you rather than WITH you. Suddenly, the waving hands look as though they are swinging, airplane smoke appears to be a danger on the horizon, the breeze startles you, the shouting feels like a signal to worry because of everything else happening, you look around and notice that uniforms you normally see rushing to emergencies are hanging around EVERYWHERE!

All of your senses are telling your brain it is time to panic. Nothing feels right. You feel stressed. You cover your ears to try to reduce noise and allow yourself a quieter moment to think, but the breeze is relentless and the sirens keep going off!

One early indicator for us that our son Nolan was on the autism spectrum comes from this parade environment. Many of you have heard of and aware of “sensory issues” that can come from busy settings for people that are on the autism spectrum. About six years ago, our school was placed directly in front of the fire-trucks for the parade. Nolan was almost one year old and we had him and his twin sister in a stroller ready to walk the parade. From the very first firetruck siren sounding and horn honking we knew we were in for the longest mile of our life. Tears flowed for Nolan. He covered his ears. We ended up carrying him as he screamed and couldn’t find peace in the midst of what he perceived to be chaos  (Click here for a sensory simulation).

If I paused my writing and asked for advice, I have a feeling many would say “Quit the parade! Don’t take Nolan next year, he hates it.” If this is where your heart is right now in reading this, I can guarantee you that you are not alone and it is one of the first things we thought about doing. In fact we did. For the next two years we made excuses on why we shouldn’t participate. We took a break.

When our twins were almost four years old, we decided not to give up and try it again. Just like many parents, we want our children to learn the lesson that when they face challenges and trials it is important to press on through them. Nolan has not missed a parade since then. The original experience sparked something for us as parents, it triggered the healthy recognition that our son has diversabilities. He is autistic and sees this beautiful world a bit differently than others, than us sometimes. He is able to take in more sights and sounds than most.

We took a closer look at the parade environment  more carefully (and other similar experiences). In order for us to support our son and help him experience these moments we realized it is best for him (and us) to preview and take time sifting through options on how to reduce some of the sensory challenges. For the parade when he was four years old we included our parents to assist in walking the parade with us, and we had backup plans in place in case things were too tense for Nolan.

Improvement has happened each year. For the past two years we have entered the school truck as part of the school’s group. This has allowed Nolan to be “daddy’s co-pilot” and given us a radio to play calming music inside while he looks and waves when he wants to do so. Windows can go up if things get too noisy, although I’m happy to report that at this year’s parade he was smiling the whole way and didn’t need this to happen. About half way through the parade he did request my phone so that he could watch his ever familiar TV Show “Super Why” to help narrow his surroundings for a while.

From the truck as I waved, I did hear a few voices from the crowd talking about Nolan as we drove by, “Check out that boy, he is on a cell phone missing the parade!”  If only they knew… this was a victory for Nolan! He was IN the parade. I am so proud of my boy and thankful for this co-pilot in life. I think we get it wrong when we always assume someone with an autism spectrum disorder needs to behaviorally change, at times the rest of us just need to pause and figure out how to change the environment a bit more.

parade

Some of you reading this may be on the autism spectrum or have a loved one who is. It is my hope to encourage you that those events you love and environments that can be overload can be overcome. Hang in there and get creative!!

Having said that, we’ll see if I ever have the courage to take Nolan to the 4th of July fireworks… again, re-imagine that setting from a sensory viewpoint. Cannons, fire, dark, booms, lots of people. Some day, maybe.