“Presumed Competence”

There is a line out of a movie that has had a profound effect in my life.
It’s from the beautiful documentary, Wretches and Jabberers. Tracy Thresher, a non-verbal man with autism is asked a question by the parent of a child with autism, “Tracy, you have said that you know you were loved as a child, but if there was one thing you could change about the way your parents raised you, what would it be?”
Tracy slowly typed out these important words, “I wish they would have presumed competence.

As the parent of a 9-year-old son who is non-verbal with autism, I have played Tracy’s response over and over in my mind, sometimes with a heavy heart while other times feeling elated with inspiration. I pondered those words the day I tried to teach my son how to empty the dishwasher only to have him complete the task as if he had been doing it his whole life. I pondered those words certainly, as I realized that I had been an unintentional enabler of laziness, not just his mom standing in the gap for him.
On one recent occasion, the words “presume competence” weighed especially heavily on my heart as I faced my son’s intervention team for his 4th grade IEP meeting. I intended to insist on changing the focus of my son’s IEP goals to becoming what I called “total concept driven.”
I had rehearsed my speech again and again in my mind, looking for a way to be firm, yet confident. “No more “first-then” focused goals. No more enabling splintered skills by presenting over-simplified concepts out of context. Let’s focus solely on context-driven concepts with an emphasis on executive functions.”
I was bracing myself for the infamous “pushback” that nearly every parent of a special needs child can relate to. I knew my son had many more cognitive gifts than he was given credit for and I was, (and am), determined to facilitate him reaching his upper limits, not sit idle, allowing his precious life to simply click by.
Have you ever been in such meetings when you listen to a panel of people explain where they think your child’s deficits lie and you wonder if you are in the right meeting? As I advocated for his goals to be redefined to a higher standard, I fielded comments that challenged what I knew to be true of my son with their underlying, (though somewhat compassionate), air of “You are in denial.”
I tried to explain that my son’s non-verbal protests to schoolwork below his skill set consisted of him fussing, rushing through the task at hand, or scribbling on the paper. It was not an expression of “I can’t do this” as much as it was, “Why should I do this, AGAIN, when I mastered this skill two years ago?” My insistence was met with an element of disbelief.
Later that day, my son’s intervention specialist was working with him on a subtraction worksheet. He tried to rush through it, whined and scribbled on the page in protest. Remembering what I had said, the teacher decided to take a break from math and just talk with my son about his school work.
She shared my thoughts with him and that I had said he may be bored at school because the work was so easy for him. She said, “It that true? Are you bored at school?” He vocalized a high-pitched “yeah”.
She, then, apologized for underestimating him and promised that from then on, she would give him more challenging and interesting assignments. In that beautiful connecting moment, he did the most profound thing: With a grin on his face, he turned the math sheet over and on the back wrote the words, “raise bar.”


“Presumed competence” grants liberty to people like my son, and like Tracy Thresher, who have intelligent minds beyond what we often give them credit for. It’s not always easy to grant such liberty when the smoke screen of autism can cloud one’s view of the truth. In fact, it may be nothing shy of an art to fully access their gifts and support their gaps. That being said, it is my heartfelt hope that we will heed what a wise young boy once said and consistently “raise bar.”


To those who choose to presume competence in folks like my son and facilitate their sense of liberty, I offer this personal tribute:

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes,
and you are one of them.
Many may try,
but only few walk through that door,
the one marked
and bring forth my smiling son.

-Vicki Sotack