Presumed Competence

by | Mar 7, 2020 | Parenting

How Believing in Our Kids will Help Them Believe in Themselves

Imagine your mother or father asks you to carry your empty plate from the dining room table to the kitchen. For some unknown reason, your body and mind feel incredibly agitated, and you can’t speak any words to explain your confusion. 

Your parent is looking at you with a look in their eyes that speaks for itself, “Oh no…he doesn’t understand. Why did I not do it myself?” You sense that your parent does not believe in your abilities. Frustration builds and you cannot let it out.

Your hands begin to flap, and you yell involuntarily, as you head into a meltdown. 

This is an example of how a presumption of incompetence adds fuel to the fire. Whether your autistic child is able to communicate in the given situation or not, your child can read emotion through your body language, and your reactions can cut the child off from learning opportunities. Your child will pick up on your belief that they are incapable, and this creates frustration and hurt feelings. It leads them to believe they are not good enough.

What does it mean to presume competence?

To presume is to assume something is the case (i.e. assume the “truth” about something) on the basis of probability despite any lack of proof or knowledge. 

Competence is the ability to do something successfully. 

When you presume competence in your child, you believe they possess the ability to learn and develop. You believe your child is capable and that he or she will learn how to communicate and will thrive. 

Why is it important to presume competence?

Hopes and dreams are squashed when you do not presume competence. 

When you believe in your child’s potential, you give your child a chance to develop and you gain the ability to be your child’s greatest support and cheerleader. 

If you presume incompetence, you hold an underlying belief that your child cannot learn and achieve growth, and this is often based on your child’s inability to effectively demonstrate what they do comprehend. 

When you change your view of what is attainable in your child’s life possibilities materialize, and development emerges. 

How can we presume competence? 

Here are some good starting points to presume and show belief in your child’s competence:

Know who your child is.

Gain an understanding of how your child uniquely communicates. Understand how they learn and know that their way of learning is not going to fit into a common box. Have faith that your child has intelligence and is capable of functioning. The goal is to believe in your child and to help them be the best version of themselves that they can be. 

Provide guidance without overcompensation.

When you take on the role of compensator rather than a guide, you reduce your child’s ability to learn and to be challenged by their own experiences, and this limits their wanting to seek out more in life. It reduces their “Ah-ha” moments, their seek-promoting experiences, “Look what I did. I want to make that happen again!” To your child, your overcompensation is processed as I don’t believe you are capable. 

Be aware of your words and body language.

Are you speaking words that reflect your child’s true understanding? Or do you speak as if you believe they aren’t going to understand? Are you using normal age-appropriate language and tone? Whether or not your child indicates that they understand what you are saying, they do pick up on your underlying intentions. Is your body language open, welcoming and friendly? Forced eye contact, exaggerated scowling, pointing gestures, and eye-rolling speak your frustration, disbelief, and stress to your child. 

Take a good look at you, the parent.

Prepare yourself for stressful situations by observing and changing how you handle stress. Do you take care of your own physical needs? Do you eat a balanced diet, and do you get enough sleep? Sleep deprivation is often a “real thing” when your child is on the spectrum. You may need to participate in sleep shifts with your partner or seek respite care to ensure you get restorative sleep. Rest is integral to an optimal state of mind. 

We Are Not Perfect 

You will have bad days. You will not succeed in every single effort, but with time and patience, coupled with understanding and belief in your child, you will help your child reach their potential. 

“Behind every child who has succeeded has been a mother (or father) who believed in his potential. Part of our basic makeup as a human being, part of our DNA, is the desire for growth, for agency, for relatedness, for motivation, these are intrinsic to human beings. Just because you do not see them in a child with autism, does not mean they are not there.”

“Over the years, I have worked with many adults and children with ASD and even the children who had the most severe co-occurring problems, were able to tap into these motivations. Every person has the potential to seek out growth and continue to want to grow throughout their life.”

— Dr. Steven Gutstein

You aren’t alone in this journey. At RDI®, we have created an Online Learning Community to help parents get real help on topics that matter the most. Get answers to your biggest questions and concerns about autism and learn how to best support your child’s growth and progress with our outstanding series of webinars. 


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