What “Presuming Competence” means and why I wish I had heard about the idea when Mia was first diagnosed.
When Mia was younger, between the ages of two and five, Roger and I used to talk about her, not to her. We would talk over her, around her, in front of her. We used to spend hours critically thinking and discussing Mia while she sat on – listening. Her diagnosis was constantly on our lips – we conversed loudly about her abilities, or her “lack” of. We used to discuss any manner of things in front of our child, things that I wouldn’t dare say in front of another living, breathing human being; things that make me cringe. We discussed topics a two to five year old child shouldn’t be privy too. We uninhibitedly used words and phrases. We threw around concepts and ideas that a young mind shouldn’t be exposed to. We described her in sometimes harsh, and downright cruel, terms. We talked of the “epidemic” that was sweeping our nation; that epidemic being our daughter and those like her.
Why did we do this? Because although we easily accepted Mia’s Autism at face value there were still a lot of grey areas. There were still so many aspects to Autism that we just didn’t understand. Although we never actively sought out a “cure” for Mia we subscribed to the idea that the “growing number” of autistic bodies needed to curtailed; that a cure needed to be found for those who would one day be diagnosed. We were told, and we believed, that our daughter was incapable of certain things. We believed these statements because it was all we knew. Those were the ideas the dominated the conversation. We knew of no Autistic adults and the idea of “Presuming Competence” was one we had yet to be introduced to. We conversed about our daughter in front of her in this manner because we assumed, inaccurately, that because our daughter couldn’t speak she didn’t have the intellectual capability to understand our words. We did this because we grew up in a society where the conversation told us that anyone different was lesser and obviously not competent.
And then one day we wanted more. So I searched and found what we had been looking for in the manner of a few good men (and women) – actually I found more than a few, I found a lot of good Autistic men and women. And it was in conversation with them that I was taught about Presuming Competence. It was within the confines of a normal, everyday conversation, that I was introduced to something so vital to my daughter’s mere existence and self-esteem. And, although I am grateful I did find this information I do lament the fact that I found it so many years after my daughter diagnosis. Why isn’t this message more predominantly spoken of? But, more importantly for me, what would have happened had I not found this information? The honest truth, I’d probably be sitting in a room right now discussing my daughter’s “disabilities” in front of her. I would be sowing the seeds of a lesser Mia in the mind of my own child. I would be doing damage.
So, what does Presuming Competence mean?
It means presuming that your child, or the said person, understands, at all times, what you are saying.
It means talking to them; not OVER them and definitely not about them in front of them.
It means that when talking to them talk in the same manner you would to a “typically-abled” person of the same age.
It means accepting that a non-verbal person can be just as intellectually capable as you or I. It means accepting the very real possibility that they are more so.
It means not infantilizing someone.
It means allowing the said person access to age appropriate learning materials, books, TV shows, art supplies, clothing, ideas, etc.
It means inviting the person to participate in age appropriate activities.
It means not limiting someone to child-like situations due to your own misgivings about what they are, or are not, capable of.
It means treating a person with respect because they are a person and not respect born out of pity.
It means throwing out your preconceived notions of what a “disabled” person is capable of and not setting limits on what they can, and cannot, do.
It means accepting that someone may be able to do one thing independently while needing support in another area.
It means accepting that there are other ways to communicate than with just the spoken word.
It means introducing the said person to different ways of communication in a bid to allow them to release their thoughts. It means not stopping until they are able to.
It means accepting that those that do not communicate in the same manner as most still have dreams, hopes, ideas, thoughts, wants, needs, feelings, desires, likes, dislikes, etc.
Above all it means giving choices, accepting differences as different not lesser, it means believing in the human ability, it means realizing we all deserve to be respected and treated equally – in all arenas.