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What My Non-Verbal Autistic Son Taught Me About Being Honest and Transparent

Musings from another day of communing with my son through his paintings...

As a "unicorn" communications professional working in diverse fields, I often surprise people with this statement:

I've learnt more about communication, diversity and inclusion, and interactions from my autistic son than anyone else.

This may sound odd to most people, especially when they know that Sebastien is non-verbal and expresses his innermost being with his body.

At every single moment of the day, Sebastien is busy regulating the stress of living in a world that is often too loud and overwhelming for his heightened senses and where most do not understand his way of relating to the world. You can see his emotional regulation efforts when he is fidgeting with his fingers, arranging his stationery or the crockery in particular configurations on the table, pulling out leaves and flowers, or picking up rocks and pushing his teeth against them, among many other atypical behavioural permutations.

But my explanation is often not enough for most people. They would still ask:

Why does he do that? What does he mean by doing that?

In their minds, they cannot reconcile what they are witnessing with everything they know. These actions are just too bewildering, confusing, and even distressing to interpret.

But the issue does not lie so much with the action per se but with our pre-existing socio-normative standpoints, preconceived notions, and reliance on language for communication. While these mental capabilities enable us to navigate through society, with all the "rights" and "wrongs," they are blinders that prevent us from "seeing" non-verbal autistic individuals without judgment.

Well, the thing is, Sebastien's paintings, which are much lauded by many, are also intimately related to his processing of his anxiety. In fact, the more complex and beautiful they are, the more emotional he might have been that day. The final outcome unleashed upon the canvas captures the final resolution of his titanic struggle with his emotions till the moment of peace and he could emerge from his sanctuary.

In Sebastien's eyes, his paintings and his other less enviable behaviours are all the same. They are all honest and transparent pieces of him. Neither is better than the other.

Thus, as I commune with Sebastien's paintings and how his baring of emotions could become transformed into these stunning tableaus, I am challenged to do better in my interactions with others:

  • Have I been honest and transparent in processing my emotions in a safe space so that I don't take it out on others?

  • Have I been honest and transparent in striving to get to the heart of the matter, particularly when there is a difference of perspectives?

  • Have I been honest and transparent in enabling others to know my motivation so they know where I am coming from?

  • Have I been honest and transparent in acknowledging others' differences (whether it is ideas or communication styles)?

I don't get it right on most days. But that is the bar I set for myself as a writer, a copy editor, a service provider, and a human being.


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