Patience Pays Off

Sometimes our patience can be pushed to the limit, tempting us to give up on a strategy that doesn’t seem to be bearing any fruit. For example, a youngster functioning on the spectrum of autism may not seem to be noticing his peers or the words of his teachers or any of the activity swirling around him at school. When this lack of focus persists for years, it would be natural to conclude that he will not learn to read. But, occasionally, an unexpected breakthrough can remind us to be patient and persistent when it is in the best interest of our friends with autism.

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For over five years, a youngster diagnosed with autism did not appear to be paying attention to anything in his classroom. Through patient work, teachers had gradually helped him learn to sit in a chair rather than just rolling on the floor. But during the school day, he seemed to be lost in his own world, not paying attention to people or events. His teachers and parents continued to read to him, to expose him to age-appropriate academic concepts in group and individual instruction, and to guide him through the motions of p.e., computer, recess, music, and meals. He did not resist these efforts, but he seemed oblivious to the world around him. This young man seemed content in his own world – mumbling repetitive phrases and rolling objects in his hands.

Over time, the student began occasionally looking at other people when they sat close, and he held books in his hands for about a minute before dropping them on the floor. He gradually started showing some interest in the computer, so his teachers and parents searched for age-appropriate, computer-based learning experiences for school and home. After about two years of status quo at this new “computer” phase, he began saying a few purposeful words and phrases. One day, he seemed to suddenly notice his picture schedule and began moving from one activity to another with minimal assistance from his teachers. He gradually began looking at his fellow students, answering a few rote questions, and looking at the teacher when she was reading or talking. Several months later, he began reading out loud. He enjoyed reading to his class or reading books to himself.

Apparently this youngster had been “soaking up” most of what his teachers and parents had been teaching for many years. His new-found ability to read and comprehend the meaning of words and sentences confirmed the fact that he had been learning all along. Although it didn’t seem to be making a difference at the time, all of that patient teaching paid off in the long run.

Now, this is not to say that every child diagnosed with autism will eventually learn to read or talk or interact with other people. But it is an illustration of the potential benefits of patient teaching. The keys are to be persistent and to find new ways to expose youngsters to concepts and encourage learning, even if it is passive learning.

Granted, it is sometimes necessary to drop a goal or to move in another direction if, indeed, continued emphasis on learning a certain skill is not in the best interest of the person with autism and the people around him. But, generally, we can help individuals with autism reach their maximum potential by patiently and persistently giving them opportunities to take little steps forward and by making learning experiences enjoyable and interesting.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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