I’m just back from a two-week vacation in California where I spent the time with a good friend and her 22-month-old son. Now, with a couple of days in New York City before returning to work I find myself reflecting on the time spent and the lessons revealed that could inform my work with children with special needs. Since I have no kids of my own I spend the majority of my time with children in a work capacity with therapeutic intentions in mind. It was fascinating and refreshing for me to just be present in the moment (as much as possible after 15 years in the field) and enjoy his company and play together.
This rambunctious little boy reminded me of just how much variability there is from child to child when it comes to development. He is always busy, on the move, and loves his toy vehicles. As a child who is being raised bilingually his expressive language isn’t yet robust but he can communicate his wants and needs clearly. Much of this variability is what we might call personality and I couldn’t help but think that perhaps in our efforts, as professionals, to facilitate development we can easily overshadow the personality and idiosyncratic interests of each child that deserve to be revered and honored. For example, an interest in trains is sometimes just that, an interest in trains. Dumping items on a hard wood floor so that you can hear the sound they make when they drop is sometimes what a two year old does when exploring the properties of the items in their environment. Wanting to pretend to have a birthday party over and over again with fake candles because you just figured out the magic of what it all means is again, what a young child sometimes does in order to gain mastery over their environment and experiences. Of course, with a typically developing child these things are of no concern as they can be with a child with autism but it reminded me that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees and can get lost in the details while losing valuable opportunities to connect and teach.
I also walked away from my vacation thinking about the fact that many of my clients who are close to the same age as my friend’s child have a definite leg up on him in the academic department (all things explicitly taught by the team of course) but the things that he could do that my clients don’t do were the skills that really resonated with me. Within a day we developed our own silly little thumbs up signal to each other as a means of connecting and building a friendship, within two days he was calling my name at the top of his voice when I wasn’t where he could find me, and when he looked at me he really looked at me with sparkles in his eyes. These are the things that are so hard to teach but really are a core deficit of autism spectrum disorder. I know I strive in my work to foster these skills along with cognitive skills but was reminded on vacation of just how early these skills develop and that maybe just maybe the prepositions or sequencing can sometimes wait a little bit longer.