In this episode, my friend, Daniel Stillman, interviews me for his podcast, The Conversation Factory. We discuss how to ask better questions, the value of loving, non- judgmental questions, and my story.
I hope you enjoy today’s podcast as Daniel flips the script and interviews me on the art of asking questions.
Autism is a topic near and dear to my heart. Though I haven’t discussed on the podcast to date, for many years I ran Move Autism, a consulting company working with children with autism and their families around the world.
In May I gave a presentation at Ignite to a packed theatre on the tools I use to help parents of children with special needs around the world. But there was a catch: the presentation was limited to 5 minutes and 20 autoforwarding slides.
The talk was on the simple tools that account for improved performance. What I’ve found from my years working with children with disability is that the tools that can help kids are simple, and applicable to everyone.
Autism is not simple. It is not just a genetic disorder, an eating disorder or brain damage. Autism is a whole host of different factors and I love working with children with autism for exactly this reason.
Most children, even with severe disabilities, prefer to spend time with other human beings. They like to interact. They enjoy being looked at. They enjoy being touched. Children with autism (often) don’t!
With children with autism there is often trouble with eating or digestion. There are movement difficulties. Autism has so many different factors to learn about, to discover and – best of all – each one is radically different between children!
I can see one child who’s very highly functioning – maybe Asperger’s – and they will not eat pasta. Another child – a little boy I work with, Zach, is amazing at taking a pen and flipping it and flipping it three times in the air and catching it and catching it on the same side each and every single time. I could train that for years and I might be able to get as good as he is.
People on the autism spectrum have such amazing and specific quirks! They have unique preferences that it is a new puzzle each time. Every timeI see a child, even somebody I know, I get to learn about a new child. I have to start with them exactly where they are and I can’t assume. If I come and I assume that the child I’m working with today is going to be like the child that I worked with last week, there’s no moving forward. It’s such a fun reset, such a neat and intriguing and useful way to start. I get to practice my own internal, mental, emotional and physical flexibility because one child might not want to come into my door and one child might want to leap on me and, right, have a piggyback ride. Because there are so many contributing factors I could see this situation as difficult, but actually it is a lot like the rest of our lives! Our family and friends aren’t always feeling the same way. We do assume that they are how they usually are. We can usually get away with our assumptions. But how much more kind, more respectful not as assume we know where someone is. I practice with kids with autism.
Autism is a dynamic system. To engage with a child with autism I’m required to bring more of myself to table, be the best that I can possibly be. But instead of viewing this as a difficult, I view it as a learning experience and fun.
I am thrilled to announce that Move Autism (that’s me) is sponsoring the first ever San Francisco Son-Rise Essentials Program®! For those who aren’t familiar with the term, I’ve talked about the program before and you can learn more here. This will be a three day course in San Francisco, April 25-27th with a follow-up “Next Steps” program July 25-27th! Learn more at http://www.sonrisesf.com.
Beginning what I’m sure will be a theme over the next several months, in this post I’ll discuss my experience with a single element of the Son-Rise Program®, called joining. Before I dive into a definition and my own personal experience, I’ll say a few words about the intersection between autism and learning. What I look to accomplish with children with autism is actually quite similar to what I look for with athletes or book authors – next steps. Autism is a complicated issue with diverse social, environmental, movement and other factors affecting each child. But what I do with individuals, regardless of diagnosis, is similar.
Step 1: Assess where and who they are, getting familiar with their habits and patterns. Step 2: Form a common bond and connection. Step 3: Invite them towards something new – be that backflips or more typical child-like behavior.
What Is Joining?
Joining is the term used by the Autism Treatment Center of America to describe a way of developing commonality with children (step two), long before inviting them into something new.
This post is about using a growth hacker’s creative and analytical mindset to radically change the launch and long-term success of the book Autism Breakthrough by my friend Raun Kaufman.
For background: Raun Kaufman is the son around whom the Son-Rise Program was created. The Son-Rise Program has since been run by thousands of families with children with autism around the world and helped kids recover from autism. Raun is the Director of Global Education at the Autism Treatment Center of America. For more information this fascinating study examines the efficacy of applying the Son-Rise Program with special needs children.
Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of “How do I get customers for my product?” and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph.
I was immediately struck by the similarities to what I have always done. Maybe its just that I’ve never had a big budget or that I was taught young not to spend money if I wasn’t sure of a return. Regardless, analytics and creative problem-solving have always been part of my work, whether for Move Autism or in any of my previous positions. I’ve always asked about processes with an eye to improving them.
I’ve talked before about one of the reasons I love working with autism. Kids on the spectrum are constantly violating my assumptions and in order to be effective I have to continue re-evaluating my beliefs and discarding what doesn’t work.
This week I am in Buenos Aires, Argentina working with several families with special needs children. And I’m experiencing a whole new model for breaking down my assumptions. Growing up I was taught that it was useful to travel because it “expands horizons.” I never really questioned that that means. On this trip I’ve come to see why traveling can be extremely useful and how expanding horizons actually works. To make a long story short – it can be hard, but it is very worth doing.
First off, my work can be challenging. I am work with children who may bite or scream or both. (Theyareincredible, too.) But on this trip I’m also in a new city, speaking a non-native language, and practicing tango. The number of challenging factors has increased by several exponents! So let’s look at how exactly this is a good thing…
Movement has always been at the center of my pursuits and practices. I now have the honor and privilege of taking more than two decades work of experience and applying these skills to children with special needs. Through an understanding of the basic science of human motor learning acquisition – or how people learn to move better – I apply the skills I have acquired to help children learn to move better.
I recently gave a lesson to a little girl with autism. Part way through our series of lessons together she had a tantrum. She is normally very calm. I hadn’t seen this before and I asked her mother if this behavior is usual or unusual. Her mother said that she didn’t really know what was going on so I suggested we try something new. Right there I applied variation. When something isn’t working, try something new! What we tried was stepping out of the room, leaving the girl to tantrum. There wasn’t any way for her to hurt herself or anybody else in my office. So we just waited. It is fascinating to watch this on camera. I have this footage recorded. At first she continues to kick and scream. And then after maybe a minute when she realizes that no one is paying attention anymore she got really quiet. And then, two minutes later, she opened the door, walked out, and said clearly: “I want to continue my lesson,” closed the door. I walked in and we continued our lesson together.
Interested in learning more? Robin works with children with autism in San Francisco and around the world. Learn more at http://moveautism.com.
I love working with children with autism. I do are not just because I get to witness sometimes subtle and other times profound transformations for the children that I work with. I enjoy what I do because selfishly I benefit in my own life to work with these special needs children!
Through practicing an attitude of loving and accepting the children that I work with I feel happier in my own life and can have an even more profound impact with the children that I work with.
Learn more about the loving attitude that works with autism in my discussion of the Attitude That Works.
I’m a fan of the author Tim Ferriss. He published a recent book called the The 4-Hour Chef, which teaches his theme of skill hacking through the medium of cooking. I’ve never looked for outside help with cooking – in college my quiches received rave reviews and my sister teaches cooking professionally at hip cooks – but I love Tim’s story-telling, flair for the dramatic, and most of all his simple, practical ideas.
One of the tools I’ve implemented since reading The 4-Hour Chef is Tim’s “prescriptive 1-pager.” The prescriptive 1-pager is essentially a next-steps reminder for the things we want to learn or implement within a given area. For example, I’m currently studying tango:
I like lists. Not just for the grocery store but also of the tools and skills I need in order to master some large goal. Recently, I do lists differently. The above picture is the Tango prescriptive 1-pager I wrote up for myself upon my return from an autism outreach in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This page doesn’t cover everything there is to know about tango. It isn’t meant to. What it does is serve as a quick reminder for all of my current areas of focus. I glance at this page before a night of dancing and choose 1-3 areas that I am going to focus on for the evening.
I love autism! This sentence begins my first book (an ebook to be sold via Amazon). I know it isn’t a typical idea or a normal philosophy. I’m sharing this idea because it is useful!
In the beginning, I think the notion of celebrating autism rang true for me because I’d been “poor baby”ed so many times in relation to my own injuries. People pity those affected by autism and then avoid them. The idea – in short – is that having a child with autism is terrible and there ends the conversation… with an awkward silence. I am just side-stepping the issue. It isn’t a matter of the “truth” about autism, whether it is hard or not, but of the outcome of these two different view points. Let’s look at what happens when we view autism as devastating and a disaster. As soon as we say “It is unfortunate that…” we get unhappy! We want our neuro-typical children to keep up with their peers, excel at music or math, and graduate Harvard with honors. Why? For our satisfaction and happiness. So we can know with joy or pride that our progeny will succeed!
I choose love and joy with autism because it is more fun, more efficient (I am always for efficiency) and there are more options available. Of course, there is a lot of learning and effort necessary to care for of a special child. And as soon as autism is an opportunity we get to ask the question “How is this good?” and a whole world of opportunities open up.
Let’s take a look at how we benefit from viewing autism as an opportunity:
I get to learn so much about what works for me whenever I work with a child with autism. When something changes everything changes. In my life when I started new physical activity I change physiologically to match that activity very quickly. If I start swimming today, two weeks from today my body will be measurable changed to accommodate for swimming. I wasn’t always able to recognize these changes but through working with children on the spectrum have learned to watch for and appreciate all of our capacity for dramatic, dynamic change.
A child with autism is such an amazing way for us to see ourselves more clearly and to learn about ourselves. Autism is an amazing mirror. If I turned up frustrated, the child – lacking our social standards and relying on attitude – is going to move away from me. If I am going to be effective with a child with autism I have to turn up loving and accepting them because that’s the only way it works. In working with these children I get to practice being loving, present, and non-judgmental.
There are so many factors to consider: digestion, social behaviors, physical self regulating behaviors, what we can guess of their mental states. As we look at and work on any one of these factors all of these factors are affected.
Every child with autism is different. Additionally, a child on the spectrum can be radically different day to day. Every moment is a new experiment with what works with this new individual and their brain at this moment!
I can spend a couple of weeks with one child working on a specific movement pattern. Not only does that pattern become much smooth but other factors, seemingly unrelated, change too. Social behavior improves. Or digestion is impacted. What is going to change is not predictable but that there is going to be change is nearly certain. This is true for all humans but because the characteristics of autism are so pronounced and because we are all so focused on all of these characteristics in our desire to change them, the changes are very noticeable.
So try something new: celebrate autism! Why not try it?
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon is a mystery told from the perspective of the protagonist Christopher, a fifteen-year-old who falls on the autistic spectrum (likely Asperger syndrome). The story ostensibly revolves around Christopher’s discover of a murdered dog and subsequent decision that this death deserves investigation. In truth, though, The Curious Incident is a touching look into the mind of a very intelligent boy whose worldview is just different from the norm. Described from Christopher’s perspective, “abnormal” behaviors are reinterpreted as logical copping mechanisms. The murder mystery takes Christopher (and the reader) into the hither-to unexplored realms of interpersonal relationship, complex mathematics (one the realms in which Christopher truly thrives), and conceptualization of social norms. In Christopher we find an endearing character who has constructed a mental framework within which he is safe, with Christopher are dramatically forced outside of this comfort zone, and grow through the experience. The story provides a novel look into the mind of a very special child who will remain with the reader long after the last page. Regardless of a reader’s personal interaction with special needs children, The Curious Incident encourages thinking about other’s perspectives in a way that is touchingly, profoundly human.