What Does Presuming Competence Really Mean?

This blog post was originally published on the saiconnection’s blog page. You can read the original here.

Child 1

He sings and hums beautiful songs. He has an uncanny ear for music. He sings in the exact pitch and so melodiously too! How does he do this? He can barely speak. At most, he strings together 3 word sentences about what he needs. He’s far behind his peers as far as speech is concerned.

Child 2

You see him read every word on posters and roadside hoardings. He watches television advertisements attentively. The next thing you know is he can read each brand name! How does he do that? He’s only 3 years old. Besides, nobody taught him. He can’t even identify letters and numbers when you ask him.

Child 3

You observe him mixing beautiful colors to make different shades. He mixes red and blue to make purple. He uses colors from the same family to make the most amazing, heart touching paintings. Yet he can’t even name basic colors. How does he do it?

Believe in Your Child’s Potential!

Dear Mother,

You have seen sparks of brilliance in your child too. You’re in a dilemma. Your child surprises you with these ‘bursts of skills.’ You have no idea how he picked these up. You feel you’re riding a roller coaster.

Up high at the highest point when your child demonstrates these splinter skills. And then you come crashing when you watch the stimmy behaviors and aggression. He doesn’t connect socially or emotionally with you. Nor does he have a single friend.

The low IQ score the specialist proclaimed adds the final nail in the coffin. You feel the terrible roller coaster pull in your tummy as it hurtles down to its lowest point.

I’d like you to consider this.

Just like Temple’s mother, you and I have a choice. We can believe in our child’s potential and be the biggest cheerleaders and supporters in their lives. For this we need to start with presuming competence.

“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.” – Buckminster Fuller

Here are some actions you can take today to experience your child’s competence:

1. Believe in your child

Know that he knows. Know that he learns in his unique way. It may be unconventional and out of the box. But believe in him.

Can you believe in his superior intelligence and functioning, even if he looks odd or is intelligible?

Hear it from Ido Kedar – an autistic individual.

”I’m a strange mixture. I am smart as a mind and dumb as a body. I can think of insights and my body ignores them.”

Believe in your child. Every child needs a parent who believes in him. This could be the make or break factor.

2. Expose your child to different experiences

How is your child going to learn if you don’t let him experience diverse situations in life?

Let him dabble with art, music, reading, typing, playing games on the iPad, cooking etc.

Even if you think he doesn’t get it, expose him to varied experiences. You never know how his sophisticated brain will tie it in. Give him the opportunity to meet new people. Take him to different places.

3. Connect the dots for him

After exposing your child to different experiences, encode these for him. Take pictures, selfie videos recording the emotions of happiness and joy. Writing or typing are other ways of bookmaking experiences.

We tend to ask many questions like ‘Where did we go?’ ‘What did we do?’ ‘Who did you go with?’

Shift to, ‘We went to Darjeeling. It was beautiful, wasn’t it? You were so excited to visit the pagoda.’

Do not focus on facts – this is an area of strength for those on the spectrum anyway. Build on emotions instead and add heart value.

Related Article: Competence

4. Talk to your child like he understands

Because he does. This point is well worth the repetition. Often, I see parents talk to their child like this:

“Rohit likes to go out, isn’t it?” while addressing Rohit.

What happened to, “You like to go out, isn’t it?’ Why the 3rd person referral?

I recently read an account of a mother and son using RPM.

As the mother chatted away with somebody about autism, the child burst out crying. On being asked why, he said “I hate it when you talk about me as if I don’t exist.”

Record the way you talk to your child. Many parents use baby language even when the child is much older. Pause and imagine how this makes your child feel.

5. Persevere

You will face setbacks. Every day is different. It may be difficult but the key is to not give up.

I went through a tough situation with Mohit on a holiday recently. He had a meltdown which drained all of us. The initial thoughts were of despair, worry and doubt.

But we set up a meeting to address underlying issue on our return.

We discussed changes in his schedule and ours, revisiting our goals and objectives.

It’s not easy to keep doing this. Mohit’s almost 28. But I’m not about to give up.

Nor should you. My dear friend, you’ve got to let go of what you see and focus on your child’s 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 Steve Gutstein

Are you going to be the parent who believes in his/her child? Are you going to presume competence?

And now here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.

– Antoine de Saint Exupery, The little Prince.

Kamini Lakhani is an RDI® program consultant and the Director of SAI School (ABA Center) and SAI Connections (RDI® Center). She has over 19 years of experience working with individuals on the autism spectrum and currently serves as the director of our RDI® Professional Training Center in Mumbai.


  1. Qing

    Hi Kamini,

    I am glad to find your article. My daughter is 7 yrs old and she is just like your case 1 child. My daughter learns songs fast with hum on key but no words. I was trying to get her learn piano or drums but not work. How is your case kid now? Any other ideas like developing herself musically as an exit?
    Thank you
    Merry Christmas

  2. Rachelle Sheely

    Dear Qing.
    Over the years I’ve worked with many children who seem to have an excellent sense of music. Often, absolute pitch, perhaps your daughter since she is able to hum on key. As parents we love knowing our children’s strengths in order to better guide them in the direction of their talents. Really understanding your little girl through an Relationship Developmental Assessment, RDA, will be an essential step in knowing how to build the guiding relationship with an eye on her future. So, start with an RDA and work on the guiding relationship, helping her become a better apprentice to you and others.
    Having said that, I have enjoyed developing children’s musicality. You might find the following useful. Think about simple patterns of movement that the two of you can do with the support of music (facing each other, holding hands, moving together) Sit at a piano or standard keyboard and make music together on the black keys. Using one finger on each hand play together on the black keys. (The reason you play on only the black keys is that there will be no introduction of dissonance and it will sound quite lovely)
    All the best for the New Year.
    Dr. Rachelle Sheely
    Founder RDI
    Houston Texas

  3. qing

    Thank you Rachelle. I did try something like sing together and wait for her response to get more lyrics . I am glad she comes up sometimes 1 sentence now. but only in singing situation. when I tried to add new words she was at lost. Thanks for your suggestions. I will try piano thing with her. and appreciated you and your husband doing such great things for us!

  4. Rachelle Sheely

    Dear Qing
    I’m not sure where you live but I wonder if you would like for met to provide information on one of our consultants who might be helpful.

  5. Rachelle Sheely

    Dear Qing
    I’m not sure where you live but I wonder if you would like for met to provide information on one of our consultants who might be helpful.

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