One of the most thrilling moments of my career was when I was working with a child with autism. Actually, not much of a child, Carl(*) was 21 years old. His mental age however was closer to that of a 4-5 year old.
His mother told me that from now on he would be my teacher and would teach me how to behave towards him. The short life we would share inside his room for a few hours a week would be the mirror of the bigger life that I have "out there." Interesting concept I thought, and at least a rather challenging assignment. To start with, one of my goals was to make eye contact with him. Taken for granted? No. Easy? Not at all.
For Carl, there was actually no reason to stare into my eyes while playing or while talking. His focus was on the floor (on his games) or at the window (where he used to withdraw when he wanted to visit his own "world"). So it was up to me to "invent" the reasons and therefore, the ways to make this happen.
At first, eye contact was literally zero. While our relationship and interaction increased, the number of times he actually looked me in the eyes remained in single digits, definitely less than 5 times per session.
At the end of each meeting, I discussed and reflected with his mother. "You have to make him raise his eyes from the game on the floor and look at you," she told me.
A couple of times we succeeded, at others he didn’t look up once. One day after we had finished our session, his mother asked me these simple questions: How did you react when Carl's eyes met yours, even for a moment? Did you express your joy? Did you remember to reward him to encourage him to repeat this behaviour? Did you show him how wonderful this moment was? I had to confess that I had not. I had been more concerned with what to do next and of not ruining the flow of the session. So this simple "Well done!" or "WOW!" was lost somewhere in the planning and the overthinking.
And if the short life in that room was the mirror of our life out there, then ..
..how many times have we forgotten to tell our own people that what they did for us was beautiful?
..how many times have we forgotten to express our joy for what we are given, just because we took it for granted?
..how many times have we forgotten to celebrate an achievement, just because "we don't have time for that right now"?
..how many times do we miss the "now" just because we are thinking of what will happen "later"?
.. how many times have we behaved in an 'autistic' way, where our "own world" was more important than anything happening around us?
..how many times have we let simple moments of beauty such as when another person looks into our eyes, simply pass by?
Could it be possible that once in a while we are all autistic?
Carl, you really are a teacher.
*Names have been changes for confidentiality reasons
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