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Charlotte Aldred explains how focussing on her autistic son’s strengths has helped him to flourish

Our son John, who was born almost 11 weeks early back in the 1970s, received a statement of special educational needs when he was seven. In many ways he was an able child but testing on the WISC-R, an intelligence test for children, showed that John had a verbal IQ 45 points higher than his performance IQ, indicative of a specific learning disability. 

Although John received no diagnoses at the time, these days he would probably be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit disorder, dyspraxia and possibly dyslexia. Despite these challenges, John, now aged 40, has developed into a happy, fulfilled and independent adult. He lives in his own home, which he paid for himself, and loves his job and hobbies. We are delighted that he has found his own niche in the world and achieved his potential but there was no “magic cure” and, crucially, we didn't try to make him “normal”. I believe that encouraging and developing our son's strengths, rather than focusing on his difficulties, was key to this successful outcome. 

Special interests

One of John's strengths was his extraordinary powers of focused concentration on a narrow range of interests. Some people call these obsessions. Intense preoccupations have been an intrinsic part of John's life since he was very small; we didn't interrupt these activities if at all possible, as we felt that the ability to concentrate was something to be encouraged. As John explained recently: “Only with much concentration and time can hidden patterns emerge, and the feeling when they slot into place inside your head is so wonderful that I wouldn't give them up for anything; it’s the highest joy in my job and spare-time activities, and I can't see anything displacing it from that position. An interest must be complex enough that its driving principles are not immediately evident, but not so complex that its driving principles are completely obscured (as, for example, in social interactions). Obviously this sweet spot moves over time.”

Because I thought John might enjoy computing (as he was far more interested in machines than people) I started teaching him how to program on a Sinclair ZX81 computer with the help of some books on programming for children. As John typed in some commands on the keyboard, these were echoed back on the television screen in front of him. According to him: “Just the ‘echoed back’ part had me hooked... It was like handwriting, only it didn't hurt; it was nearly effortless and it looked a lot more readable.”

I can still remember John's amazement and pleasure when, at the age of seven, he typed in his first simple program and the computer worked out the right answer. For the first time in his life John was in control. Until then, his poor motor coordination and social skills meant that everything was a struggle. Many people on the autism spectrum who find it difficult to cope with the inconsistencies of the world around them would agree with John when he says that “Computers are an oasis of consistency and controllability in a chaotic and unpredictable world.” 

I had hoped, perhaps naively, that typing programs and playing computer games would improve John's hand-eye coordination and his poor writing. However, according to John, his hand-eye coordination for tasks other than computing wasn't helped at all. His writing remained slow, painful to produce and difficult to read. It was fortunate that he was allowed to use a computer during his A level exams. For a child with poor coordination and handwriting, the ability to produce written work on a computer is absolutely vital, as this helps to level the playing field.

Social difficulties

I didn’t realise, when I introduced John to computing, the extent to which it would contribute to his happiness. If you're unfortunate enough to be in a position where your abilities are very patchy, you will be continually aware of your failings and your feelings of self-worth can easily take a severe knock. John left school at 18 with his self-esteem at rock bottom; however, he began to feel much better about himself when studying computer science at university, finding at last that he was spending his time doing things he was good at. The positive feelings that accompany mastering a skill and continually trying to improve are very valuable and provide an important confidence boost.  

As a child, John found it very difficult to cope with group situations such as those to be found in a classroom. Although children and adults on the autism spectrum enjoy their own company and have difficulties with social communication, they are often quite sociable and want to have friends. It's tragic that many of them find themselves lonely, isolated and misunderstood. Fortunately, John’s passion for computing meant that, from the age of nine or so, he always had a few really good friends who shared his interests. I never worried whether John was involved in heavy computer projects with these individuals or whether he was playing games; I was so pleased that he was really happy and having such fun.

For many years, it seemed as if John was incapable of belonging to a group. In reality, he just hadn't found a compatible one. Since the 1990s, the internet has turned out to be a wonderful way for him to find and communicate with people holding similar interests to himself. It has satisfied the human need to belong to a group of like-minded individuals, something that would have been almost impossible to achieve otherwise. It has meant that John has never felt lonely.

A different style of working

The internet has proved to be the perfect medium for a person happy with words and language but poor at face-to-face communication. He has as much time as he likes to read what others have said and make a considered and thoughtful response, which can be edited before it's sent. Moreover, the sensory issues of too much background noise (which John finds very distracting) disappear when he is sitting in his own home engaged in an email conversation. In fact, John's social skills improved enormously during his twenties and thirties, which he says is largely due to “lurking” on the net. This enabled him to read the exchanges between other people in a quiet and stress-free environment. On the internet, John is no longer at a social disadvantage; his weaknesses are hidden and his strengths maximised. 

I believe that everyone on the autism spectrum should be encouraged to find like-minded people on the net so that they don't have to feel like social outcasts all the time. However, precautions may need to be taken against cyber-bullying and a passion for computing must not be allowed to stop the child participating in normal family life. It is also important that these, often socially naive, individuals are made aware of computer safety, so they don't become victims of predatory paedophiles or criminals who can use an autistic person's computer skills to engage in a variety of unlawful activities. 

Understandably, for someone with ASD, John doesn't like certain features of the technology, such as web cameras (where his difficulties reading body language would show) or chat rooms and instant messaging websites, which rely on instant responses, where his slower processing speed would become apparent. He also has no use for virtual worlds, where he believes his poor social skills would be as much of a handicap as they are in the real world.  

Using his skills

John’s computer expertise has meant that he has been employed continuously since he left university, working at something he really enjoys. Even in times of high employment, anyone who is able to work at something they love is very fortunate indeed. Out of necessity, many people have to work in jobs they don't like. When the employment market becomes difficult, then having any job, not just one that utilises one's training and skills, can become problematic. This is particularly the case for those on the autism spectrum, as good communication skills are required to manoeuvre one's way through the interview process. It was certainly John's technical knowledge, rather than his people skills, that helped him find his first job.

Nowadays, John works for a large computer company in conditions that are ideal for someone on the autism spectrum; he works from home. All his communication, except for a weekly phone conference, is text based via the internet and he doesn't have to cope with the distracting noise of an office or the stress of commuting.

As well as a job and companionship, John has derived many other benefits from his computer expertise. By using the computer as an aid to help him overcome his poor short-term memory and hopeless organisational abilities, he is able to put some order into his life, thereby reducing his anxiety levels and the number of associated panics. He has been intellectually challenged and, via the internet, been able to satisfy his insatiable thirst for knowledge. Computer programming has enabled John to utilise his creative abilities to the full, thereby avoiding frustration and a host of secondary problems. When he releases a new computer program into the free software community where it can be of use to others, he feels that he has “made a difference”, which is a very satisfying experience.

I believe that one of the most important lessons to be learned from John's story is that the intense and narrow focus displayed by so many children on the autism spectrum is a strength that should be encouraged. There's no doubt in my mind that exploiting John's ability to focus so intensely on something that interested him, introducing him at an early age to a topic (computer programming) that I thought he would enjoy and then allowing him as much time as he needed to indulge his passion, was the best course of action I could have taken. Computing provided John with a creative outlet, a perpetual intellectual challenge, some companionship and a career. It has enabled him to indulge his love of complex systems and pattern spotting, a characteristic strength of many people on the autism spectrum.  I can't imagine what life would have been like for John without computers. They have played to his strengths, enabled him to be part of a social group of like-minded individuals and provided him with a challenging and enjoyable way of earning a living. 

Further information

Dr Charlotte Aldred, a parent and former scientist, is the author of Different or Disabled? A Positive Approach to Parenting a Child on the Autism Spectrum, which is available from Amazon:

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