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The Can Instead of I Can’t

By Christine Denise

Autism Mom and Contributing Writer for As You Are, a virtual clinic dramatically increasing access to early autism diagnostic services through the use of exclusively telehealth appointments


One of our autistic son’s favorite things to do is swim.

He absolutely loves the feeling of being in the water, and loves feeling like he can’t touch the bottom. He loves the feeling he gets when he’s just about to jump in, but holds himself back.

The way he shows how excited he is is to screech and sometimes let out a blood curdling scream.

It’s definitely jarring to hear a small child scream like that around water.

That’s why we try to stay on top of him whenever we go to public pools where people don’t know him or how to interpret it.

We are fortunate to have a relative who lives in a condo complex with a pool we frequently visit in the summer. Most everyone in the complex knows our son, so he is free to squeal and screech all he wants while soaking up all of the sensory satisfaction the pool gives him.

But on one recent afternoon, he did it while swimming near an older couple who didn’t know him.

They went rushing to him while he was in the water and helped him toward the stairs.

I went over to them and immediately started apologizing like I always do and explaining he is autistic and nonverbal and this is just how he expresses how much he loves the water.

The woman looked at me and told me she is a retired special needs educator.

So, I launched into an explanation of how sensory seeking he is, how he struggles to communicate, so we get a lot of screeching and screaming when he’s so excited he can’t contain himself or express it like you or I would.

Then she asked me: Tell me about what he can do.

I stood there kind of stunned.

No one had ever really asked me that – especially someone in the education field.

Rarely is there ever any talk about what he can do.

The IEP meetings or conversations with teachers and therapists are usually really emotionally tough, because we have to have honest discussions about whether he is progressing or not. 

And more often than not, he’s not.

Every application we ever fill out to get services for him, or grant money for him involves checking boxes or discussions about what he can’t do.

But for about 15 minutes, I sat there with this woman, a perfect stranger, and talked about what he can do.

At times, I struggled to come up with more things he can do.

We become so conditioned to focus so intensely on what our children can’t do, it is easy to sit back and lose sight of what they can. And, again, this woman told me she was a retired special needs educator, so I immediately thought she would want to hear all that he couldn’t do. 

She helped me along in the conversation, asking if he uses a communication device.

I told her he does, but he’s making very slow progress on it as well.

Then she said, yes, but he can use it.

Afterwards, I felt so much better about my son, the situation, and, obviously, it’s still stayed with me.

I told her about how he no longer needs physical therapy because the therapist and I believe he met all of his goals.

I talked about how he eats a lot with his hands because for the longest time he didn’t eat anything, and was even on a feeding tube for about a year. So, we’ve just let him eat with his hands because he loves the sensory experience of touching his food – and, most importantly, he eats!

She told me it sounds like he’s come so far.

I sat back and told her, he really has.

And thanked her for reminding me of that.

She went back to her shady spot at the pool, and I went back to the perch where I always sit to make sure I can see my son wherever he may be in the water.

The next time he screeched and splashed with excitement, she looked at me from across the pool.

And we just smiled. 


Do you have questions about your child’s development? The team at As You Are provides useful autism screening and diagnostic evaluations for kids 16 months to 10 years old via telehealth appointments.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. This is a sponsored blog post, but all opinions are my own.

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