He was the child that changed me. He was the one who showed me that hope and moments of magic, however small, can change everything.
He wasn’t mine – I worked with autistic children as a behavior therapist. To give you a little background, I was involved in the preschool program but still had my own individual clients, which meant I was there to support him through any behaviors he had during the session, while still integrating him into the social activities that his peers were participating in. Among many other things, he taught me how to let go of my heart.
To be honest, I didn’t think I would like him. Our first day together in the preschool program, he sobbed loudly and screamed the whole time because I kept him sitting in his tiny plastic chair for circle time. My ears were ringing and I was literally sweating by the time circle time was over, and he was very unhappy that I had kept him in his seat for the whole seven minutes.
There’s still so much we don’t know about autism, but over the six short months that I worked with this kid, I came to understand some of the reasons he was frustrated.
When he started the program he was nonverbal, which meant he had no way of communicating how he felt or what he wanted. Pretty quickly he started to learn sign language with us, and the first time he learned the sign for “all done” was at snack time. He looked up at me, did the sign with his crumb-covered hands, and made an utterance that sounded similar to “all done”. His huge brown eyes stared up at me, full of hope but totally unsure, waiting for validation until I confirmed that yes, he could be all done with his snack. He then presented his little hands for me to wipe off so he could take his plate to the dirty bin.
He taught me to be unapologetically myself. This kid loved to sing. He didn’t know words, it didn’t sound like a tune at ALL, but he would go all out while singing along to songs. During Old MacDonald he would be the only one singing for circle time, which consisted of “oh mah-oh-oh ah ah arhm, eee aahh ee ah ohhhhhhhh”, and so on. The other kids on either side of him would be watching him with wide eyes, perhaps wondering why he was being so loud, but he wasn’t looking around for eye contact or attention. He needed no confirmation whatsoever – he knew the song and wanted to sing along. In his own mind it undoubtedly sounded exactly the way it was supposed to. We could all take a lesson in confidence from him.
I grew to love him in a way that I didn’t think was possible for a child who wasn’t technically mine. When he sat down with Goldilocks and the Three Bears for the first time, he wanted me to point out everything that was happening in the pictures, and act it out in hand motions. By the third day that I read it to him, when it got to the page where Goldilocks knocked on the door of the bears’ house, I noticed that he had done the knocking hand motion without even looking at the page. He’d memorized the book.
He learned so fast – for communication at the beginning he started with simple hand signs, then used a picture exchange system, then within six months was using an Ipad with language symbols to talk. He would press a button and it would say aloud “help”, or “bathroom” or “snack”, and so on. Before he graduated preschool, he was starting to form simple sentences using the ipad. Instead of just requesting “snack”, he would press icons for “I want” and “snack”. There was one time he took an extra few seconds to think about what he was requesting, so I reached forward to help prompt him. He immediately pushed my hand away and gave me the DIRTIEST look a tiny three-year-old could give. A look that said, ‘get out of my way, I’ve got this’. I never underestimated him again.
Before this child became my client, in all honesty I wasn’t sure I wanted kids. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I’d be a good mother – it’s that this world is so cruel sometimes and I didn’t think I could handle seeing kids in pain. Specifically the kids I worked with – not being able to express themselves and what they were feeling – that frustration must have been unbearable. But for this boy, so many things stood out, and he showed me that there can also be so much pure joy. How could such a young human being be such an incredible inspiration? I was the therapist, and yet he taught me countless things.
He showed me so much strength and courage in such a small person. He lacked the inhibitions that weigh the rest of us down, and therefore lived his three-year-old life with utter honesty and without fear of judgement. He gave me so much laughter that started with endless frustration. There are so many positive things I could say about him, but above all else, he taught me how to let go of a piece of my heart.
Sometimes the student becomes the teacher. And sometimes we need to see small miracles in order to have faith that what we are doing is making a difference in this world. I have no doubt that he is going to grow up and do something great with his life. I’m just grateful I was able to be there for a small part of it.
He was my small miracle, and I’ll never forget him.