Generating Good Surprises

By Dan Coulter

Damon Runyon, author of the play, "Guys and Dolls" once said, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet."

Whatever races and battles you’re dealing with, life is full of surprises.

If you’re raising one or more children who are on the autism spectrum, you’ve probably had your fill of negative surprises. That’s a given. But the positive surprises can more than compensate for the negative, if we keep ourselves in the right frame of mind to take advantage of them.

I say, never take a positive surprise for granted. We have to be careful that training ourselves not to show disappointment doesn’t also block us from showing appreciation and enthusiasm when our kids demonstrate something they’ve learned or accomplished. I think encouraging and then reinforcing positive behavior is one of the most powerful teaching tools we have.

Granted, teaching children who are on the spectrum can be a challenge, especially when you’re dealing with brains that are not always naturally wired to understand the interactions and relationships most people take for granted. My son Drew has Asperger Syndrome. He’s highly capable in a number of areas. The other day I watched as he helped my wife resolve a complicated sales tax problem in the accounting for our business. Looking at her computer screen, the solution was obvious to him. But there have been plenty of times when I’ve wished that he was just as capable of sensing other people’s feelings and needs.

With this in mind, I'm recalling a pleasant surprise I got a while back. First, some quick background. I'd had some shoulder surgery and spent about a month with my right arm in a sling. Even though I was out of the sling, I was supposed to take it easy with the arm. During one of our family meetings, my wife, Julie, realized that she would be out of town on the day of my first physical therapy appointment. She suggested that Drew drive me. Drew volunteered to drop me at the clinic, do some shopping, and then pick me up. I agreed with Julie that I’d have Drew drive me if my arm didn’t feel up to it. On the day of the appointment, however, I let Drew know that I’d drive myself.

When I emerged from my session of arm-stretching, I found Drew in the waiting room. We walked outside, and I asked him if he’d forgotten that I’d driven myself. He said, no, but while he was shopping, he got concerned that I might not feel up to driving home, so he’d stopped by just in case.

I was touched, and told him how much I appreciated his thoughtfulness.

His consideration reinforced the fact that difficulty in seeing the appropriate way to respond in a given situation doesn’t necessarily mean that a person on the spectrum doesn’t care or that he isn’t trying hard to understand and do the right thing. Time after time, Drew has surprised us with bursts of development in areas that have been difficult for him.

If you’re the parent of a younger child on the autism spectrum and you’re working hard to help your child, but you’re not always seeing a lot of progress, I’d like to offer an observation.

I can’t guarantee that all the time, patience, and love you invest now will make him or her swifter and stronger in the races and battles that matter the most in the future. Or that your efforts will help produce positive surprises along the way.

But that’s the way to bet.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR –- Dan Coulter is the producer of the DVDs "Understanding Brothers and Sisters with Asperger Syndrome" and "Understanding Brothers and Sisters on the Autism Spectrum." You can find more information and articles on his website:

Copyright 2008 Dan Coulter (Revised 2014) All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

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