Christina Toebast
Christina Toebast with her husband and kids. Image Credit: Supplied

“When you look at the world through the eyes of someone with a disorder, you can tell their life will be different, in some ways more difficult,” says Dutch expat Christina Toebast. “But that also means you can see the issues and make changes that can help them.”

The mum of five kids – aged 23, 20, 19, 18 and 13 – has been using this approach to empower all her children, especially her daughter, who was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, and her youngest, who has dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia i.e. trouble with reading, writing and numbers.

What is Asperger’s Syndrome?
Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Dr Arif Khan, Pediatric neurologist and Founder and CEO of UAE-based Neuropedia, explains that autism spectrum disorder is a neurological disability that affects the social and emotional interaction of people and their understanding of special cues and bonding with people. Autism is not a physical disability and often is not noticed by people. Therefore, these children are labelled as aggressive, introverts or anti-social.

Kids can be cruel – sometimes unwittingly so, she says, so her armour for her children has always been reason; her weapon of choice, rationale. “Kids make fun of each other,” she says, adding that while a parent must make the school or teacher in class aware of the problem, they must not expect them to do all the work.


Start with affirmations

“What I teach the kids… [I say] look in the mirror and tell yourself every single day when you wash your face, ‘I am amazing. I am amazing. I am amazing.’ You will see – in the beginning, it’ll be strange, but it gets easier. In a way, you rewrite your brain. And you will start believing that you are amazing – and you are! There are multiple things about you that are amazing. Every human is unique,” says Toebast.

The other strategy she uses with her kids is questioning the reason – and truth – behind any accusation. “Elena [who has Asperger’s], she remembers text letter by letter. But the funny part is that when they [kids] are being laughed at, they forget all the things they are good at and feel low. And then we stop them… we have to say, ‘Wait! There are things about you that make you special,” she laughs.

Whenever Elena is sad because of something that’s been said, Toebast says she sits her down and asks her:

  • What did they say?
  • How do you feel when that’s been said to you?
  • Is it true? What could they be basing this statement on? Is it the truth or just made up?

“If you analyse a comment with your child, 9 out of 10 times, they come to the conclusion that what that other child is saying is based on nothing. And if it’s based on nothing – they wouldn’t believe it, right?” she says.

Of course this is a tactic that only works with the older kids – those who can analyse. “I do that [analyse] with all my children about everything,” laughs Toebast.

This ability to ferret out the truth of a situation and unspool the lies builds a solid foundation of self-confidence, she believes. Using her son as an example, she explains: “If something happens with my 13 year old at school, he just turns around and says, ‘You are rude’, or ‘Yes, I have dyslexia’, so? He has that self-confidence,” she says.

Motivating a child with a disorder

How do you get someone with a learning disorder to engage with their studies? Especially if the letters seem to interchange, as do numbers and words as you write them? You strategise and go bit by bit. Toebast explains: “In the case of my youngest, who has three disorders, what we started off with when it comes to, let’s say, doing a sheet of homework was: you take three sections and make them different colours: red, yellow, orange. You say to your child, red is mandatory, everyone does it. If you do orange, you get a star. If you do yellow, you get two stars. Then you make a reward programme, extra TV time for example.

“Now, he’s in school and everyone is amazed at how motivated he is to learn, but it’s because he’s developed his own system where he is satisfied with himself. And it’s not like he’s completing everything, but he’s doing enough. Keep it positive; when you have a child with a disorder, you sometimes get frustrated – this is logical, we are human. But if you keep it positive and reinforce what they can do, you will see that the mentality of your child will change as well,” she says.

Look at the abilities

Toebast projects a sense of urgency as she talks about the shift we need in perspective. “We are all just human and we are not the same. And yes, some do struggle with studying and others don’t have to study but they get an ‘A’ anyway. That’s true, but let us look at what we shine in. My daughter, couldn’t finish school. Okay, but she’s good at photography. And the other one is good at painting. And the other one does finish school with all As. Perfect. If we as parents can just get our children to look at their abilities, I think we have a big a win.”

Changing the narrative starts with a simple addition to your routine. When you wash your face, look into your own eyes in the mirror and say three little words: You are amazing.

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