Presuming Competence in Your Children with Autism

The title art for the RDIconnect podcast "Autism: A New Perspective." The subtitle reads "The podcast show to understand what's going on in the mind of your child and encourage you that growth IS possible! Hosted by RDI Certified Consultant Kat Lee."
Autism: A New Perspective
Presuming Competence in Your Children with Autism

When we have high expectations for our children, looking at them as a wonderful little human being with so much potential, they feel that, and then it makes a huge difference.

In this episode of RDIconnect’s podcast series: ASD, A New Perspective, Dr. Rachelle Sheely talks about how believing in our kids will help them believe in themselves.



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Full Transcript

Kat Lee: Welcome back to ASD: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child, and we do encourage you that growth for your child is possible. In this week’s podcast, Dr. Sheely shares with us the importance of belief and hope in your child. Let’s listen in.

Kat Lee: I want to talk to you about believing in your child. I feel so passionately that when we have high expectations for our children, and I’m not in any way talking about judging them or wanting them to be a certain kind of person, I’m not talking about that. I mean looking at them as a wonderful little human being with so much potential. I really think, as we guide them, they feel that, and then it makes a huge difference. What have you seen with that, Rachelle? What are your feelings? 

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I couldn’t agree more, Katherine. And when I talk about believing in one’s child, and believing that we can get the child where he’s going to be, to reach his potential, we’re not talking about pie in the sky, and we’re not pretending. We’re not saying, “If we wish, it will come true.” It’s not like that. I think we really have this belief that the sky is the limit when it comes to the potential our children have. I think what makes it hard is that when parents hear the diagnosis of autism, it interferes with the dreams they had for their child. And suddenly, all of the dreams like, “She will be the president of a company, and he will… ” whatever. Whatever those dreams were, now they don’t have them anymore. And once they’ve given up those dreams, it can be very hard to go back and recapture them or to think of a new dream, or to say, “What is the potential? What does this child like?” which is, of course, what we do with our children anyway. But hearing the diagnosis of autism puts a different spin on that.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: And so, as you know, in RDI, one of the first things that we ask parents to do is rekindle that dream, and we do it with mission statements. So when we talk about a mission statement, we’re saying, “In six months, what would you like to see your child be able to do?” Because we have to start somewhere. And not every child at eight years of age is going to be the president of a company. So we start with, say, “In six months, what would it be?” And we have them really put that together as a dream. What would it look like? What kind of a story can you tell yourself that you can picture your child walking in, you walking in six months from now, that you would say, “I’m seeing success here”? And by starting at that point, we really get closer and closer to the child knowing, this is different from the way it’s been. And the child begins to feel, and the parents begin to feel their own hope rekindled, and they feel their competence beginning to take root.

Kat Lee: I love that. And I think what happens sometimes to parents, too, when they hear that diagnosis, that unfortunately, in that intake period for them, when they’re being visited with, it’s… I say “still”, because I know you and I have been working with children for some time, it’s still the… You almost could say the language is all wrong when we talk about it. It’s such a negative moment, and those… Amongst those negative moments, well meaning professionals can kind of take a knife to some of those dreams. You know what I mean? Kind of be like, “You need to accept this, ripe… ” One of my friends said, “At the ripe old age of two in some cases,” which, it makes no sense when you and I talk about it, that that would be the crystal ball outcome for any reason, does it? It just doesn’t make sense.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely:  It doesn’t make sense. And I think what’s hard is if you’re looking to make a diagnosis, you’re not looking at a person’s strengths. You’re saying, “What can this person do?” And when I talk to a parent, I like to get a sense of what they see as a child’s strengths, and maybe they haven’t even thought about them. And so when you get a picture, when you get a snapshot of a child with a parent, you’re not looking at what the child can’t do, but within that guiding relationship, the parents don’t have something going, you’re saying, “Look what he just did.” And sometimes, it’s so subtle that the parent doesn’t pick up on it.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: Let me give you an example. Is that okay? So I was thinking about a young man who his father said to him, “I was just telling you a joke,” meant that he was joking about something. And the boy said, “Do you know why seven billion is afraid of nine billion?” And the dad saw it as, “Here we go again with that restricted range of interest,” and he said, “No,” and the boy said, “Because nine billion is bigger than seven billion.” And he was making a joke.

Kat Lee: Yeah.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: What we could see was that his mind was actually working, and it wasn’t working yet in the way that made sense to us, but he picked up, his father said the word joke, and so he took this, what he loved about numbers, and he turned it into a joke. It was really very amazing to see that. And so, that’s what we’re always looking for. What’s that spark of light that is turning this child on? Where do I see you come together? And what did that minute and a half look like? And did you notice it? And so there’s always something. And once we’re able to identify those things and we start moving on, then the parent realizes that even though they’ve been thrown this curve, which is called autism, they still have an ability to work with their child, and in fact have done so, and look what the child can do. So you always need something to… I think you always need something to build from, and finding that thing to build from is probably the most important thing we do when we do our assessment, which is different from a diagnostic assessment.

Kat Lee: And I think about how… It’s the why of why parents as the main guides are so important, because as a parent, you are going to know your child’s strengths. You live with them, you see them. It just reinforces what we already know, is how important being a parent guide is.Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I believe you’re right about that, and I think that parents do have a sense of their children’s strengths. But if they have been looking at a lot of documents that say, “This is wrong, that’s wrong, this is wrong, need to work on this,” and once you see a 12-page report that’s full of that, you begin to question whether you really do know what they are, and whether you see as a strength, really is a strength, or is it pie in sky, and something you made up.

Kat Lee: Yeah, I was about to say, I like the way you really make that discrimination that this is not pie in the sky, and this is not wishful thinking. These are real strengths you see in your baby, in your child. I say baby, whether they’re two or they’re… My babies are my babies. [chuckle]

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: Or 38.

Kat Lee: Exactly, right. But in your baby. And why do you know your baby? Because they’re your baby. And I think it’s important for people to know that these are not things that are imagined, these are real strengths that you’re seeing.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I think the other thing, too, is that when we begin to look at children and their trajectory, we really don’t know what it is. And I often say to parents, “If I could, if I could tell you right now that this is all going to be okay, you wouldn’t believe me because you won’t believe me until your child starts getting better. So let’s start working on this, [chuckle] ’cause I want you to start feeling better, and you’re not gonna feel better until your child is better.”

Kat Lee: And I wanted to emphasize, too… I wanted to emphasize, too, that believing isn’t changing. Over the years, I would hear people say, “Well, are you trying to change your child?” And I say, “Absolutely not. I love him as the charming person he’s always been. He’s one of the most charming people I’ve ever known. I wish I could be like him when I grow up.” I want him to be able to live his life to the fullest, and live that expanding life he’s meant to live, period. And for his personality to be able to be seen by people, and for him to be known as who he is. There’s no changing I would want to do. I think that’s really important.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I think it is important. And the other thing we’re not trying to do is we’re not trying to give someone a set of skills so they look okay, or so that they appear to do it. I remember, years ago, Steve used to say, “It’s like telling a child with dyslexia, ‘Pick up Moby Dick and pretend you can read it.'” No, that’s not what we’re doing. And we are actually saying, “We don’t know your potential right now, but we’re gonna help you reach your potential,” and that’s a very… It’s a very different thing. It’s also… I guess it’s also different from belief and hope, and I hope… I say this the way… I hope it sounds the way I mean it, but hope and belief are not strategies. They’re good to have, and they keep us moving, but they’re not strategies. And we need strategies that understand a child’s strengths, what that trajectory is going to look like, how we get them on that trajectory. And we get them toward that road, toward that end point of independence, and then… And that’s what the strategy is for. But we have to keep the hope and the belief because that keeps us motivated as we go through the process.

Kat Lee: And I always say that when you get to that process and you start seeing what happens, your child gives you more reason for that belief and hope. It’s just a wonderful thing.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: It is.

Kat Lee: We didn’t say anything else, probably to consultants and parents, that this… That hope and belief aren’t strategies. It’s the marrying of all that. It’s the marrying of them. One does one for the other, and they help each other. [chuckle] Right.


Kat Lee: Thanks for joining us for ASD: A New Perspective, a podcast show where we help you understand the mind of your child, and we always encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee. See you next time.


  1. Sheollagh Fitzgerald

    I think what you’re discussing in this interview is so very important (and is one of the reasons why I think RDI is such an important approach to helping kids on spectrum). With all children, the future is an uncharted land and each child’s journey is yet to be fulfilled. There is everything right about having hope and belief in your child, no matter what their features. I have described for parents this kind of thinking and responding as “As if…” thinking. Who knows the future strengths of their child? It is so important to inspire them and not to restrict them (or our own hopes for them). Just a final comment…in response to the question as to whether we as parents or therapists want to change our children, I don’t think any answer but “yes” is desirable. Of course we want to. We want to help them mature, develop their skills in all areas, and learn how to navigate in the world. All parents want their young children to change; it’s called development and maturity. Kids with spectrum features are no different. That’s my soap-boxing for the day!

  2. Rachelle Sheely

    Hi Sheollagh Thank you for your comments I like to think that all parents, as you say, want to help children reach their potential.

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