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Autism Mad Libs: How to Fill In the Blanks

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Autism Mad Libs: How to Fill In the Blanks

By Ellen Notbohm

Autism Asperger’s Digest  July/August 2014


On long car trips, my brother and I loved to pass the time playing Mad Libs, a fill-in-the-blanks word game where one player prompts another to insert descriptive words into a story without knowing the context. The results are usually comical. Mad Libs is still around; I recently played it at a baby shower. “New parents should always (verb) the baby (adverb) when he or she (verb) during (noun)!”

Sometimes my work feels a little Mad Lib-y, sans the humor. I’ll get multiple emails or  messages, all with the same theme and variables, something like this:

“My (son, daughter, grandchild, niece, nephew) has been diagnosed with (autism, Asperger’s, PDD-NOS, ADD, ADHD). Soon s/he will be starting (preschool, kindergarten, first grade) and I am (anxious, scared, worried, losing sleep). S/he has made great progress with (speech, sensory, behavior, eating) therapies. How do we help (him, her) to (make friends, participate in “regular” kid activities, go places we want to go)? We’re feeling (hopeless, overwhelmed, intimidated) by the complications and challenges of what may happen in the years to come. How do we know if we’re doing the right things? How do we know how much (he, she) is capable of?”

Most parents of children with autism confront some of these feelings and uncertainties. But unless I’m missing something, what jumps out at me first is that I can’t see one thing in these messages that indicates a reason for hopelessness.

“. . . has made great progress with therapies.” What better indicator of hope do we need? A child just starting school is very young—he or she has thousands and thousands of days until adulthood. Progressing in therapy at an early age shows us that s/he has the ability to learn, develop and improve skills. Not only is that terrific, there’s no reason to think s/he won’t continue that trajectory, growing and maturing and advancing in many ways.

“How do we help our child to (make friends, participate in “regular” kid activities)?” How would you do this with any child? By seeking out happenings, settings and people that interest him, not what you think he should be interested in, or what you wish she’d enjoy. An exasperated parent recently told me, “I simply can’t engage him. I’ve taken him to every sporting event I can think of.” I replied, “Stop doing what isn’t working. Ask what he’d like you to do with him. If his answer doesn’t appeal to you, you’ll have some idea of why he doesn’t engage with your chosen activities.” His expression shifted, and I treasure the shaky smile he gave me because I knew things were going be different for this dad and son.

Broadening a child’s interests happens slowly, incrementally. If you don’t start from a place that lets her know you respect her likes and preferences, she may grow to regard all new experiences as something to dread or avoid. She’s more likely to engage with people who share her interests and likes, because that’s true of everyone, not just kids with autism.

“We’re feeling hopeless and overwhelmed by the challenges ahead. How do we know if we’re doing the right things?” There’s a word for this state of mind: parenthood. No parent knows what’s ahead for their child. I recently read a piece arguing that the phrase “do your best” should be avoided, that it causes anxiety because “best” can’t be measured. I couldn’t disagree more. Knowing that you are doing your best as a parent is an intimate relationship with yourself, a feel you develop, an instinct with which you become comfortable. You needn’t explain or measure it for the scrutiny of others. Doing our best isn’t a task-by-task evaluation either, it’s a big picture, long haul state of being. Although far from a perfect parent or wife, I’m at peace knowing that, overall, I did my human best parenting my spectrum children.

Life is random and full of risks, and can change for better or worse in an instant. Those “right things” will change as your child matures; what won’t change is the need for your unflagging commitment to self-education and discovery: gathering information, trusting your instinct, not being afraid to learn by informed trial and error, and nurturing The Three Musketeers (All for one, one for all!) of Autism Parenting: Curiosity, Resilience, and Optimism. When you do this, both parent and child will learn what works, and how to set achievable, incremental goals, embrace the process and enjoy the ride without obsessing about the far-off outcome.

“How do we know how much s/he is capable of?” No parent knows this at age four, or six, or even sixteen. But there is one great certainty: your child is capable of more than he or she is doing today. I don’t go to the extreme of saying anything is possible, because there are some things kids with autism can’t do. They can’t stuff pianos up their noses or fly under their own power. But my own can-do son is an example of how much is possible, can-doing things I made myself dare to dream when he was young. He attends college, drives a car, holds a job, manages a bank account and credit card, cooks, votes, takes himself to the doctor/dentist, and travels alone by planes, trains and automobiles. He doesn’t yet live on his own and I don’t know how long it will take him to finish college. But I have faith in the process, because despite enormous challenges, trusting the process has worked so far.

So I would re-write the Mad Lib like this: “Our child is on the autism spectrum and has made great progress with early intervention therapies. Soon s/he will be entering a new classroom environment. We’re eager to provide a smooth transition; what can we do at home to prepare,  and what information and materials should I provide to teachers? How do we teach social thinking skills, nurture a healthy sense of self? What do we need to know and do to continue to guide our child toward reaching his/her full potential? The challenges of the road ahead loom large, but we are encouraged by how far our remarkable child has come already.”


Ellen Notbohm is author of one of the autism community’s most beloved books, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, and three other award-winning books on autism that have delighted and informed millions in more than twenty languages. Read excerpts and sign up for Ellen’s newsletter at www.ellennotbohm.com.

Further reading

“Being Social Begins with Thinking Social” http://autismdigest.com/being-social/

“Creating Positive Partnerships” http://www.cwla.org/voice/MJ10exchildren.html

“I Choose to be Optimistic,” by Bryce Notbohm http://www.ellennotbohm.com/listmanager/email1012.html

“Journey to Independence: Guiding Your Child with Autism to Adulthood”  http://www.ellennotbohm.com/2013/07/journey-to-independence-guiding-your-child-with-autism-to-adulthood/

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2014. All Rights Reserved. Any distribution, print or electronic, prohibited without permission of author.

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