Reaching for the stars, feet on the ground

By Ellen Notbohm

Author, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew

When I take the podium to keynote the ChildWise Autism and Asperger’s Conference on September 28, I’ll marvel as I always do at the setting, a gathering of parents and teachers of children with autism, the likes of which didn’t exist as recently as fifteen years ago. In the years since writing my books about teaching and raising a child with autism, I’ve worked with thousands of families and schools around the world. The questions that come to me have so many common threads. What’s the first thing a parent should do? The second? The third? How do I keep from becoming overwhelmed with conflicting information?  How do I know if my child will ever (speak, read, go to college, hold a job, marry)? How can I teach him to reach for the stars?

We’ll consider all those questions in my keynote and the round-table sessions that follow. But let’s tackle that last one here.

“Reach for the stars.” We start by recognizing that a metaphor dear to us may be meaningless to a child with autism. Concrete, literal thinking is a common characteristic of autism, and a concrete thinker will ask, which star do I reach for, when there are zillions? I could stretch until my arms pull from their sockets and I can’t get close. Wouldn’t I burn up if a got close to a star? If I did catch one, then what happens?

What do we really mean when we say “reach for the stars?” Most often we are urging our children to push themselves to excel. But how will it be heard by a child with autism, who likely is struggling with multiple sensory, communication and cognitive challenges? Will they take it as encouragement? Admonishment (for not trying hard enough)? Anger (for not being good enough)?

Before a child can reach for the stars, he must be grounded in self-confidence and optimism. We have to place him under a sky figuratively cloudless enough that he can see that metaphorical star, and the star must be reachable. We lay the foundation for our children’s success when we give them clear, relevant, incremental, developmentally appropriate, attainable goals, along with the tools, problem-solving strategies and emotional support to achieve them. We teach them to reach not for a metaphor, but for realistic achievements and qualities, for the best they can be. And we assure them, daily, that their best efforts will always be good enough for us, that we care more about the sincerity of their effort than about any outcome. My son didn’t even know what a valedictorian was until shortly before he became one. He had simply done his best, because that was a star high enough for him–and for us.


Award-winning author and mother of sons with ADHD and autism, Ellen Notbohm’s books and articles on autism have informed and delighted millions in more than nineteen languages. Her work has won a Silver Medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, a ForeWord Book of Year Honorable Mention and two finalist designations, a Mom’s Choice Gold Award, Learning magazine’s Teacher’s Choice Award, two iParenting Media awards, and an Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist designation. Her book Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew was named to’s list “The 20 Essential Books about Special Education.”  She is a contributor to numerous publications, classrooms, conferences and websites worldwide.

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