7 Dec 2015

5 Lessons I Learned About Life From a Workshop on Autism

Before becoming an independent content marketing consultant, I spent almost nine years in the corporate, trying to make my way through it, eventually (and happily) giving up. I couldn’t digest many aspects of the corporate world - especially its culture. I kept feeling like everyone chased the same things, blissfully unaware that they were headed in a wrong, overcrowded direction.

Last weekend, I attended a seminar on autism, thanks to my friends at SAI Connections. The speakers included Dr. Steven Gutstein (Dr. G), the founder of an autism treatment program named Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), and Mrs. Kamini Lakhani, someone who, in the last year, has shown me the other side of autism spectrum disorder - a side that 97 percent of us don’t know about. The more I interact with her, the more intrigued I am about the condition. Because while I earlier looked at autism as a disability, Kamini showed me how remarkable children with the condition are. True, their brains are wired differently from us, but that doesn’t make them disabled. In fact, the more I read about these amazing children, the more I feel like we ‘normal’ people are the ones who are disabled.

As I heard Dr. G’s speak, I started correlating his concepts about autism to everyday life. Everything he said had lessons for leaders.

When you hear the word ‘leader’, do you only think of a politician or senior executive of a giant multinational corporation? No, leadership encompasses much more. You can be a leader if you are a parent, a musician, a spouse, a team member or anyone whom others look up to.

Here are 5 lessons applicable to leaders which I learned at the workshop:

1. Plug the hole

Dr. G gave a terrific example - one which struck an instant chord with us: A ship is sinking, and the captain and crew are busy siphoning out the water. I have a glue that will fix the problem for good, but the team will have to stop bailing out the water and work with me. “We’re busy right now,” they say. “If we stop bailing the water out, the ship will sink.” Fair enough. But we are humans. Ultimately, our muscles will give way, and we will fail to siphon the water at the same speed as it’s entry. Or we will just die out of exhaustion. And the ship will sink anyway.

We are enamored with ‘fire-fighting’. We wear it like a badge, always addressing seemingly urgent things without addressing what is actually important. We are busy making others do what we want, or doing things ourselves because ‘we are faster at them’. But in the long run, we make people dependent on us. And once that happens, we complain about having to do everything, burning out, not having a life anymore and so on. 

Remember: Short term pains for long term gains. If you truly want to stoke someone’s creativity and independence, focus on plugging the hole of the ship rather than bailing out the water.

(L-R: Dr. Steven Gutstein, Mrs. Kamini Lakhani and Dr. Rachelle Sheely)

2. The far end of the pool

Parents and professionals overwhelm children with autism with infinite information, believing that the children will eventually grasp it. But it doesn’t work. They throw the child in the pool (metaphorically) hoping that he will learn to swim. Often however, the child steps out of the pool to save his life, and never returns. This hurts not only the parents but also the child, because his development is impeded.

The same happens in the professional world. Managers simply ‘throw people in the pool’ and expect them to perform. But this ’First day-First hour productivity’ is an overhyped misconception. When a pilot is trained, she is not immediately put onto the simulator, and bombarded with poor weather conditions and an engine malfunction. She is guided over time to develop the necessary skills to handle any situation - even the ones not included in the simulator.

The same principles must be applied by us. Before you expect a miracle from your subordinate, child, or team member, you must help her imbibe the necessary skills to deliver one. Remember, if the child or subordinate cannot do what you expected, the blame lies squarely on your shoulders… on the shoulders of the leader.

3. Empower growth seeking

Like children, if subordinates have to grow, they have to be presented with a positive and predictable environment. Before you try to develop specific skills in people, you must provide them with experiences which make them feel secure.

Motivation should be growth-seeking, not growth-limiting. I have seen far too many bosses do the latter. They demotivate people, or instill fear in them. This not only reflects the insecurity of the inept managers, but also builds a culture where people want to quit, not grow.

Leaders, on the other hand, alter the way their subordinates perceive themselves. They let their team members expand themselves to grow mindfully and accept unpredictability. Dr. G emphasizes on helping children with autism develop a sense of self, without which, they cannot function in a world which is not black and white. I believe the same can be applied to each avenue where a leader functions.

4. Most things don’t matter

We are always busy. Phone notifications, emails, meetings, multitasking, parenting, working… there is so much to do, and such little time! Surely, we should get better at time management.

But time management is a myth. Task management is the truth. It’s not about the number of tasks that you do, it’s about the number of times you do specific tasks which matter to you.

Warren Buffet has a philosophy: Write down 25 goals, and choose the 5 most important ones. Don’t put the others on the back burner. Instead, ignore them. Every time you have a task in mind, ask yourself, “Does this fit in with my goal?” If the answer is yes, proceed. If not, ignore it.

You will find that you can pursue selective work that pays off and will have more time for yourself. Sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it?

5. Don’t tell, show

As I mentioned, before I met Kamini, I thought autism was a disability, that affected children were incapable of living independent lives, and that they are liabilities for their parents.

But in the last year, Kamini has shown me how wrong I was. And Dr. G did the same in his workshop. They spent more time demonstrating through videos and activities than telling me. And rather than telling me to get rid of my misconceptions, they watched patiently as I put all my delusions in a box, threw them off a cliff, and waited for the sound of them smashing against the rocks.

Barking orders and instructions is not half as effective as showing people. Language can never replace visuals. Use results, case studies, videos or anything that can keep people captivated.

It’s funny how life is, isn’t it? We find inspiration at the most unexpected places. I am single. Yet I took away a lot from a workshop about autism, and will implement them in my life. Which point struck a chord with you the most?


  1. Thank you for sharing these nuggets of wisdom that you rightly mentioned can help us in any role where we are leading others.
    All of these points make perfect sense to me being a parent. My favorites though are points #3 & 4.
    That picture quote is so true, but it often takes us a long time in life to realize its depth. Nevertheless, the minute #4 makes sense to us, life gets productive from there on.

    1. Thanks ME. Many of us realize the truth mentioned above, and the futility of what we are indulging in, but we just cannot stop ourselves from bailing out the water from the sinking ship. It takes a shift in mindset to start working towards 3, 4 and 5.

  2. Hey Vishal! What a powerful piece this is! Almost all the points struck a chord with me! #2,#3 especially are so identifiable in the corporate work environment! You have brilliantly absorbed the crux of the workshop! Autistism and the myths surrounding it need to be expounded more profoundly. These illuminating pointers will be really valuable in every walk of life I am sure. Thanks and well done :)

    1. Thanks Kala. Hopefully these points will help you enjoy more peace in life :)

  3. Very interesting observations, Vishal. Yes, ideally one must groom others to slip into the role of managing responsibilities. But you know the challenge is when the boss is not as knowledgeable or expects things to be done in a certain manner without understanding the big picture. Often it is the leaders who are a problem and that is something you can do precious little about. As far as parenting is concerned, trust me the rules are turned on their head. One thing I have seen people who don't have children wonder and sometimes say aloud, "Why can't you manage the child better? or Teach him good manners. It makes me smile because only a parent know how independent and totally difficult that tiny child is. You should see the way the youngest throws his weight around. He defies anything you tell him softly or request him. It require oodles of patience and the understanding that one day they will grow up that makes you juggle various sticky scenarios and somehow live through them. It is not to say that parenting is not rewarding but it is very very challenging. After digressing, yes the pointers are great. I just hope that leaders read them as well. :)

    1. Thanks Rachna. No denying that people would rather work 16 hours a day than parent a child - it's bloody difficult. But I also think it's the best way to develop leadership - to help children find what they truly want to do and use those methods in the corporate too.

      And you are so right in saying that leadership is often the problem - people don't quit their jobs, they quit their bosses.

  4. Such a sad scenario that 97 percent people believe in something that is not true. But I am very happy to see there are people like you and others who are making a sincere effort to change that ratio by raising an awareness about autism. Well done! The points are all profound and it's really difficult to single out any but what I really liked was the definition of a leader. Definitions many a times are the very holes of the society we live in because it is something that is passed on and something that we tend to accept without questioning. That makes this post even more commendable, definitely plugs a few holes and breaks some bricks in the wall prevalent at large!

    Also, best wishes for your independent venture, Vishal!

    1. Thank you for the wishes Arti.

      Regarding autism, I'm doing very little. It's people like Kamini who are changing the perception about the condition and helping parents find their children again. The stories she shares sometimes make tears well up in my eyes - and I consider myself too macho ;)

      You're so right in saying that we accept things because that's how they always have been. It's important to free ourselves of such stereotypes to progress.

  5. Such a wonderful post Vishal and so many takeaways both from the parent/ person perspective. The ones about assuming we are indispensable struck a chord because most of us fall into that trap. We believe that without us, things will stop. They won't. They'll go on, perhaps in a different way but the task will get done.

    I really needed to read this today. Guess the Universe was listening :) Thanks for this.

    1. Thanks Shailaja. Glad you found this post useful. The thought that we are expendable gives us inner peace also, because as you said, we know that the world will function without us and don't have to be frantic. After all, we are all but an invisible spec of dust in the vast Universe.

      Thanks for dropping by :)

  6. The one that really resonates with me is number 4. I often think this way too. We are so busy and yet so much of what we are busy with doesn't matter. There is a saying "Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at the things that don't really matter." And that begs the question then, what matters? We all need to determine this for ourselves and then focus on it and like you say, ignore most else.

    Have a great day!:)

    1. Such a lovely quote Colleen. Thank you for sharing. It should be one of the key quotes that we lead our lives by. It's going right in my diary.

      As Bruce Lee said, "it's not the daily increase but the daily decrease that matters."

  7. Thanks for the informative article. There are few well-known professionals who provide autism treatment in kolkata. Looking forward to more informative articles from you.


badge UA-22264662-1