I got a flyer in the mail the other day about a two-day conference being held in Providence, Rhode Island in March titled Identifying and Building Strengths and Nurturing Talents: The 11th Annual ASD Symposium 2006. The conference is co-sponsored by Barry Prizant, who led the team that developed the SCERTS model.
It's an interesting focus for an autism conference: building strengths and nurturing talents. It instantly made me think of two posts from Brett at 29 Marbles, from December and September. Brett's posts really resonated with me, especially this quote from Keith Ferrazzi's book Never Eat Alone (which Brett has read and I have not):
The trick is not to work obsessively on the skills and talents you lack, but to focus and cultivate your strengths so that your weaknesses matter less.
This makes intuitive sense to me. Let's say I struggle with math - the concepts just don't "click" for me - but I have a talent for languages. I have limited time and limited energy. I can opt to spend the bulk of my time and energy learning math. It will be difficult and the chances are good that I won't enjoy it, but I will make progress. The progress is likely to be limited, however; I'm probably never going to get an A in Differential Equations or pursue a career as a mathematician.
On the other hand, if I put that time and energy into languages instead of math I am very likely to become fluent in a foreign language (French, for example.) I am likely to enjoy it, and it is likely to build my confidence to pursue further opportunities for learning. It is likely to open doors to me that would otherwise have been closed - I might live in Paris, I might become an interpreter for the United Nations, I might become a French teacher.
Isn't the same thing true for people on the spectrum? And if it is, then why do we always seem to focus on the deficits and challenges? Of course we need to remediate the core challenges in autism, just as I need to develop the math skills I will need to balance my checkbook, figure percentages, and solve problems. But we also need to seek balance in our children's lives. Bud needs to work at the things that don't come easily - using spontaneous language, making interpersonal connections, developing executive functioning skills - but he also needs spend time and energy pursuing the things that come easily to him and feed his spirit: singing, drumming, playing music, working with computers and electronics, performing, swimming, and more. He needs to become functional in his areas of deficit; he also needs the opportunity to truly excel in his areas of strength.
So the symposium in March is exciting to me. The brochure reads:
This symposium is the first national forum to address the importance of understanding interests, strengths and talents of people with ASD relative to social, academic, vocational and leisure skills and settings. Presentations and discussions will focus on the importance of identifying and enhancing these abilities for people with ASD of all ages and ability levels in educational, community, home, and vocational settings.
The symposium's speakers include Temple Grandin and Stephen Shore. It will also feature a performance by 13-year-old award-winning jazz pianist Matt Savage.
As parents we already spend so much of our limited time and energy focusing on our children's challenges and deficits; this symposium offers an important opportunity to achieve a bit more balance and focus on the good stuff.