A Conversation with Maja Toudal: An Insider's Perspective
Some children are a mystery to their parents. This can be especially true when a child falls on the autism spectrum. It is difficult enough for the child to understand how they themselves feel, let alone a parent knowing how the child feels. And, the child’s teacher or doctor? Well, they find it even more difficult knowing how a child with autism is feeling.
The good news is the book, What Your Child With Asperger’s Wants You To Know: And How You Can Help Them, certainly helps demystify the experience of supporting an autistic child.
The book was written by Maja Toudal who has Asperger’s herself.
Maja spends a good deal of her time talking to parents and teachers about what it means to have autism and how they can better support those with the condition.
Meet Maja Toudal
Maja Toudal has become a leading voice in autism circles. A regular speaker at autism conferences, as well as parenting and networking groups, Maja offers a unique perspective to parents, teachers and doctors trying to better understand a child with autism.
As Maja explains in her book, she didn’t have the words growing up to explain to her parents what having autism was like.
As she grew older, however, she worked with people of all ages on the autism spectrum, as well as specialised professionals, like Dr. Tony Attwood, to learn more about autism spectrum disorder. From these encounters and her own experiences, Maja began to give a voice to those with autism.
One of the first things you notice when picking up Maja’s book is how practical it is.
Within the first few pages the reader is presented with 10 rules. These are what Maja calls “foundational pillars” that anyone who is supporting someone with autism should follow.
We highlighted the 10 rules below.
If you do get value from our summaries, we recommend you purchase a copy of Maja’s book. The book takes a deeper dive into each rule and practically outlines how parents, teachers and doctors can integrate the rules into their lives.
10 Things Every Autistic Child Wants You to Understand
Rule 1: I am a human being, no matter how different I seem
Regardless of how much support a child needs due to their autism, he or she still deserves respect. Maja emphasises to parents, teachers and doctors that respect should be ever-present, regardless of a child’s sensory issues, social impairments, or differences in perception.
Maja goes on to say that the way parents treat their autistic child will have a huge impact on his or her self-worth. So, although she says you can—and should—offer your autistic child help and support, you always want to do it with respect.
Finally, she reminds parents that there isn’t something ‘wrong’ with autistic children. They are merely different.
Rule 2: There is something in this world that I am great at
“Every child with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) is good at something,” Maja explains. However, they may need help finding that talent, developing it, or sticking with it until they become good at it.
Still, she writes that once they do discover what they’re great at, those children will experience tremendous joy. Perhaps even more so, because they’ve become so accustomed to hearing about their limitations.
Rule 3: I am different from every other person on the spectrum
“Each person with autism is as different to the next as each person without autism,” writes Maja. Children on the autism spectrum have different personalities, ways of expressing themselves, unique sensitivities, and diverse backgrounds.
For these reasons, you can’t—and shouldn’t—assume a child is just like every other child on the spectrum. Instead, you should view a child with autism as being every bit as unique as someone who doesn’t have autism.
Rule 4: I need love
It’s tempting to believe children on the autism spectrum don’t need love, because they might not enjoy being touched or hugged. However, Maja says they absolutely do—oftentimes, they just need it to be expressed differently.
“You could express your love verbally rather than physically,” Maja says. “Or give a smile instead of a touch. You can also ask if the child wants to be hugged. And remember, if they don’t want to be touched, don’t see it as a rejection.”
Because autistic children often find human expressions of love to be overwhelming, Maja also suggests a pet might be a great source of love. An animal has the potential to offer children the love they need in a less complicated way than a person might.
Rule 5: I need space
People can be overwhelming to be around. By contrast, spending time in solitude can be restorative for children on the autism spectrum.
So, avoid the tendency to equate a child’s need for alone time with loneliness. Although children with ASD may experience loneliness, for the most part, they view solitude as desirable.
Rule 6: I am trying
Parents of children with ASD may get frustrated when it doesn’t seem like their child is trying. Their child might even be viewed as lazy.
Maja urges parents to trust their child is doing the best he or she can. “Rather than viewing your son or daughter as not putting forth enough effort, it’s important to understand they also wish they could do more and live up to others expectations,” Maja says. “Your child would love to be able to do all the things that you can do.”
Rule 7: Sometimes, I need a day off
Maja asks parents to imagine what it would be like to never have a day off for the rest of their lives. This can be how children with ASD feel, because the only time they can relax is when they’re alone.
While Maja realises that parents, teachers and doctors may view this statement as a slap in the face, she urges them to understand that it in no way diminishes their important role in a child’s life.
Instead, she just wants them to understand that in the same way you need the occasional day off, so does a child with autism.
Rule 8: My energy is spent quicker
You can generally expect a child with autism’s energy to run low before your own. Maja likens this phenomenon to a laptop running on batteries.
“When just two programs are running, the battery remains charged longer,” she says. “However, when the laptop’s running ten programs at once, it dies quicker.”
She surmises that because people with autism have sensory and processing programs that require active attention, their ‘batteries’ drain faster.
Rule 9: I need you to catch me, not carry me
All too often, parents want to ‘carry’ their children, preventing them from experiencing any hardships along their journey. Rather than doing that, Maja encourages parents to let their child get bruised from time to time.
“By doing so, you’re showing your son or daughter you believe in them,” Maja says. This mindset is incredibly important, because it helps children develop the confidence to succeed, so that one day they can enjoy happy, successful futures.
Maja adds that all too often, parents look at famous people on the spectrum and believe their child’s autism is more “severe”, and as such, they could never accomplish something similar. She cautions parents away from this mindset, reminding them that they didn’t see the years of hard work and effort those individuals went through before achieving success.
Rule 10: Chill out
Although Maja understands that this is easier said than done, she encourages parents, teachers and doctors to do the best they can to ‘chill out’.
As she points out, “feelings are contagious. So, when you get stressed out, your child picks up on that and becomes stressed as well. Then, as your child’s anxiety mounts, your stress worsens, creating a downward spiral.”
Rather than allowing that to happen, it’s important to remain calm and act like everything will be okay. A child with autism is likely to pick up on these feelings and, as a result, your easygoing demeanour will go a long way toward maintaining a more harmonious household.