Autism Spectrum Disorder - A Great Joy And Privilege To Work With Autistic Children - Intensity Passion Innocence - Nourishes My Heart
On Disruptions To The Dharma -- Or How To Be Saved By A Child With Autism
Describes some of my experiences with a child with autism spectrum disorder (pdf). Argues that it is a great joy and privilege to work with autistic children. Describes such children's intensity, passion, and innocence. Describes how my daily contact with these children nourishes my heart.
Work - Octobe 17, 2003
2003.10.17. Friday, 5:37 a.m. Work.
At school my heart is refreshed dozens of times a day. The children erupt constantly with a vitality and love that is awesome to behold. It is an inspiration and a privilege to be around them. I consider myself very fortunate to have found a career that engages my heart with such force and openness.
But the adults and the paperwork, however, can bury a teacher -- and they frequently do.
So it is that I resort to the children for inspiration. It is their unqualified passion for life that motivates and nourishes me. It is their innocence and vitality that form the foundation of my love for this wonderful career of mine.
The fact that I rarely comment on this foundation of joy is unfortunate. I tend to write about what ails me, especially since becoming electrically sensitive.
It is those (endless) disruptions to the dharma -- to how things ought to be -- that summon my mind's attention.
I will try to remedy that. I will endeavor, at least once in a while, to record a few of these "small miracles," if only to provide some balance to my apparent tendency to focus upon the negative.
My assumption is that miracles happen daily. It is my assumption that joy and optimism form the foundation of my life.
While my heart and body are in communion with this wider truth, my mind -- at least on a superficial level -- is consumed by the details and shortcomings of my life, absorbing itself in a near constant stream of analyses and criticisms.
But here's something positive for a change:
I have a student, let's call him "T." He's a remarkable four-year old boy who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He uses a lot of nonsense language -- words that he has made up. He babbles to himself a lot.
T displays some behaviors that are common to children with autism: avoidance of eye contact; multiple articulation errors; nonsense speech; echolalia (repeating what is said to him); the need to keep objects in a specific order; obsessive preferences for certain foods and activities; and a general unwillingness or inability to interact with others. Autistic children like T frequently appear to live as if in their own world.
Since entering my class, T's mother has reported that he is talking a lot more -- singing, actually. As well, he's engaging much more with his siblings.
During lunch T sits next to me and is always rubbing my leg or tapping me on my back or shoulder. He likes to take lettuce out of my salad bowl and feed it to me directly. I usually make a loud animal noise as I snap the lettuce from his hands with my mouth, much to his delight. He also likes to tap me as he begins a finger play, with the intention that I finish the song for him. I'll usually elect to sing a song or two, and then ask everyone to get back to eating.
I have frequent, intense interactions with T at circle time. When we sing songs as a group, T will often lock eye contact with me for the better part of five minutes straight. Usually, I am the one who chooses to break free of the eye contact, not because the eye contact bothers me (far from it), but because of the jealousy that other students feel when I give so much attention to a single student.
You have to have worked with autistic children to know what I am talking about here. Often you look into their eyes and you feel/sense a consciousness that is caged there --- an intense life force that is severely restricted in its ability to communicate to others. When T's and my eyes meet, I feel as though the intensity of our connection is pulling him out of his shell. It is as though his limitations begin to crumble as his attention gets increasingly concentrated, looking at each other eye to eye, swaying to the rhythm of our songs.
Maybe I was just more sensitive than usual, but yesterday was extraordinary. T got out of his chair and stood between my legs, his hands holding my knees, for about five minutes as I took the group through a variety of songs. I felt, more strongly than usual, the intense energy of his eyes enter me, almost burning my retinas as I absorbed it all. Flowing through my eyes, T's energy filled my brain, and then cascaded downward to fill my chest. Throughout this time T's face was smiling, alive and without pretense -- in a state of rapture -- with his eyes in constant contact with mine. It was as if he were searching for some kind of message or validation from me that could awaken him or bring him out of his restricted state. The intensity of T's love and concentration buoyed me for the remainder of the day.
My experiences with T remind me of similar involvements with "R" -- a student I worked with back at [school x] -- who would grasp my shoulders with his outstretched arms, rocking back and forth as he stared deeply into my eyes. R's eyes, like T's, possessed an inspirational vitality -- but in R's case, with the additional hint of madness.
I will say it again: It is an extraordinary privilege and joy to be able to work with such rare, intense, and innocent children. Children like T keep my emotions strong and free, and provide ample protection from the robotic and nihilistic paperwork and meetings that consume a third of the teacher workday.
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