Entrepreneurs

I Spoke to My Autistic Children for the First Time. Here’s What it Taught me About Leadership.


My daughter’s favorite color is blue.

Until a few days ago, I didn’t know her favorite color. Although she is 23 years old, I’d never had a meaningful  conversation with my daughter, Savannah, because she is autistic and nonverbal.

My husband and I are the parents of 23-year-old triplets, two boys and a girl, and Savannah and Ethan are both on the spectrum. For their entire lives until now, we understood their needs and wants by studying their body language. They’ve lived their lives without the ability to express themselves through words, facial expressions, or even eye contact. They have seemed indifferent to the circumstances around them and live in their own world — at least that’s how it seemed.

A year ago, we were introduced to a communications app that helps nonverbal individuals communicate. The app allows users to type out words and have them spoken back as they type. 

We began working with a coach to help Ethan and Savannah learn how to use the app. The process started with us reading short stories from a workbook, and then asking questions about them.

The first sessions were disasters. Not only did Ethan and Savannah not know the answers, they didn’t seem to grasp what we were doing. Whatever they did manage to type was gibberish. After 10 months, I wanted to quit.

Then, I thought, what if I approached the process with the tools I encourage my coaching clients to use with the people they lead? The result was a breakthrough that has transformed our family.

Here’s how these practices for clear communication and leadership played out with Savannah and Ethan — and how they can help you achieve breakthroughs with the people you lead.

Presume Competence

We assumed Ethan and Savannah had the potential to succeed with the app — it was our approach that was lacking.

The stories we read were about how plants grew, or the invention of the telephone. Could it be they found the stories boring?

I remembered that since the kids were toddlers, my husband would play the Beatles during drives to school. I started there. 

“Savannah, could you name one of the Beatles’ songs?”

(typing) “Hey Jude.” “Let it be.” 

“Where are the Beatles from?”

“Could you name one of the Beatles?”

(typing) “John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.”

I was shocked! I couldn’t believe that moments before, I had been ready to quit, when the potential to break through was there all along.

The lesson for leaders is to presume competence in the people they lead. Believe they can succeed. If you believe it, it’s likely they will believe it too. 

Tap into emotional sensitivity

After a lifetime of paying attention to my children’s physical cues, I’ve developed an intuition of what they are thinking and feeling. This gives me clues that tell me when they’re engaged or disinterested. You can do this with your teams, too. Listen with more than your ears. Be mindful and present, tuning out distractions so that you can “listen” for information-rich nonverbal cues.

Emotional sensitivity also means acting with empathy. Putting myself in Ethan’s and Savannah’s shoes allowed me to realize they weren’t relating to the workbook stories. What do your people need, individually and as a team, to feel engaged? Once you find what that is, go with the flow and help them lead themselves.

Resilience and positive reinforcement 

Once we had this breakthrough moment, I used positive reinforcement to encourage Savannah. This helped us both tap into the resilience we needed to keep going.

When I asked her what kind of car her dad drives, she typed, “Tesla.” When I asked who the head of Tesla was, she typed, “Elon Musk.” When I asked what other business Elon Musk is in, she typed, “SpaceX.” I was and continue to be astonished at the depth of all she knows.

And, of course, when I asked her favorite color, she emphatically typed, “Blue.” Imagine my surprise — for 23 years, I had been buying her pink and purple clothes! 

This experience has been a personal revelation to my family. But it isn’t simply a story about autism and the breakthrough we experienced. It’s a story about how any leader can not only set their teams up for success, but have them go beyond their highest expectations. By presuming the competence of your team, engaging your emotional sensitivity, and finding resilience through positive reinforcement, you can be the key to help unlock any door.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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