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On the Spectrum Between Context and Contest

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On the Spectrum Between Context and Contest

By Ellen Notbohm

Autism Asperger’s Digest  November/December 2013


The turning of the calendar approaches, meaning we will soon be called upon to weather another predictable avalanche of designations of best or worst this or that of the year coming to an end. The most, greatest, top, first, last or least. Nothing is spared: books, movies, restaurants, shoes, coffee, workout routines, kitchen gadgets, members of Congress, apps, bands, cars, sound bites, t-shirts. Something in us or in the culture drives us to declare these absolutes, bestow these official terms, turn every facet of our lives into a contest.

Such absolutes are the mainstay of questions asked of me in interviews and emails. What is the first thing a parent should do after the autism diagnosis? What is the Number One thing parents must master? The worst thing a parent can do? The best piece of advice you ever received? The single most challenging thing about raising a child with autism? Describe your child’s best teacher. Describe your child’s worst teacher. What was your proudest moment/biggest accomplishment as the mother of a child with autism? What’s the most common mistake parents make? Of your 1001 Great Ideas, which is your favorite? Which of the Ten Things is most important?

And the all-time first-place most worst question I’ve ever been asked: What’s the best way to punish a child with autism.

About a year ago, I declared myself officially weary of absolutes, determined to change the dialogue. If autism teaches us nothing else, it is the meaning of the word “spectrum”: a range, a continuum, a breadth, a gamut. Every color of light visible to us, literally and metaphorically. A coalition of thought, fact and experience on a subject with extremes at either end. When we focus on highlighting the polar margins, we risk missing the vast bandwidth of the spectrum between the extremes. For many years, these most-best-worst-first questions seemed unavoidable, so I felt obligated to answer in kind. In time, I came to the realization that a question phrased in a narrow way didn’t mean I had to answer it narrowly. The answer could be, “There is no single best-worst-most-least-first-last. Let’s explore that question more fully.”

We have a mantra in our house, invoked when we encounter gratuitous statements of more, less, better, worse: “It’s not a competition.” Best, first, top and most are competitive terms, and while competition can be fun, motivating and appropriate in certain situations, allowing it to pervade every aspect of our thinking is not healthy, because what’s missing from most best-worst questions and designations is something we’ve lost track of as a society in a sound-bite, spin-doctor culture: context.

Context is everything. More and more frequently, I find myself having to explain that my book describes ten things about autism—not the “top ten” things, not the only ten things, not ten universally applicable things. The idea that there could be a best or most anything that would apply to all parents or teachers or children is ludicrous, even dangerous. My website statistics offer a vibrant picture of just how global the scope of our concern about autism. During 2012, visitors from 165 countries and territories arrived on my cyber-doorstep. They reached out from every corner of every continent; they came seeking information, inspiration, encouragement, hope and community. Like the air itself, the autism spectrum crosses every natural and manmade border we know, every geographic, political, racial, cultural and socioeconomic boundary that exists. It renews my determination to think and speak about our children with autism in terms as individual and timeless as possible.

Cataloging everything into bests and worsts and single-most whatnot not only restricts our thinking, but models the same for our children, many of whom already think in black and white. Life offers few black-and-whites. Our children will learn nuanced thinking, perspective-taking, curiosity and social awareness only through years of our patient guidance through the diversity of thought and opportunity they encounter every day of their lives. “Being best or worst at something is not the end of the world,” opines my son Bryce, “We still live. We live, and we ‘win’ in other things, in many ways.”

Into any life bracketed by any arbitrary time period come highlights, lowlights, and everything in between. January is a month I look forward to, relishing its peace and bleak beauty as a time to think and reflect and plan. In this contemplative time, I ask myself questions like these:

What did you learn this past year?

Whom did you meet who influenced your thinking?

What do you know about your child that you didn’t know a year ago? About yourself?

What will you do differently that proverbial “next time”?

What are you ready to let go of?

What are you ready to reach for?


A decade ago, I confronted a simple but profound question that changed my life. It did not ask me to quantify or rank anything, and my response was all about proving something only to myself, a yearning for a personal accomplishment to which no scale of comparison mattered to me. I can still see that question on the page: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? I cried when I read the question to my husband and he said, “Well?,” and I didn’t even take a breath before I whispered, “I would write a book. . .”



Ellen Notbohm is the 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. Visit her at www.ellennotbohm.com and find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ellennotbohm. Please contact the author for permission to use in any way, including posting on the Internet.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Any distribution, print or electronic, prohibited without permission of author.






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