Snapshots: Intimacy with Children and Autism

Not even peanuts, no pretzels anymore. Years ago we had meals on airplanes.  For free.  Perhaps it's for the best that they cut these out.

But I can listen to music, now that my year of mourning is over, and rather than pack breakfast, last minute I add Bryn Terfel and Renee Fleming to my ITunes library.

And for the first time in months,
there's that  . . . calm.

Except I miss FD.

We're on separate vacations because I had a job in the states and he has a sick relative in London, a stop-over to Israel. He left almost a week ago. Neither of us anticipated how it would feel, the apartness. We talk about separation being good for a relationship, but there is such a thing as too much of it, especially if you go into it thinking that it’s no big deal.

We’re winding it down. I’m on my way home, ready to board. My 4-day work vacay is over and I have a good phone connection, am talking to FD at the gate.

When your children are close to you and they marry people from out of town, and they settle there, in someone else’s home town, you feel like a loser. Another couple, other parents your age, people who could have been classmates, lovely though they may be, are the winners, and you and your partner, the losers.

And when the grandchildren arrive, for the first time in your life, if you’re someone like me, you feel an emotion that is highly disconcerting. Even though you’ve never felt it before, never had it, and certainly aren’t consumed with it, rarely even think about it, you know it right away. It's jealousy.

Dare I share all of this with you?

I’ve kvetched about it before, and my kids think I do it to guilt them, but nothing could be further from the truth. I only write about it because it’s so rich, seriously. Visiting adult children is so rich emotionally, seeing them flourish, raise their own families, struggle with their work and relationships, making it, not without stress; this is so full of emotional cream that swooping in from the outside and not writing about it, frankly, feels wrong.

But it went too fast. Time to get home.

FD is preparing for his return trip, too. There are so many miles between us, the time zones are so different, that we haven’t really talked much, not at all, in over a week. Not much texting, hardly an email, and it hasn't helped that the phone I rented for him, the pelephone, is garbage, a veryold Nokia.  Perhaps the first Nokia ever made. Definitely the first.

Which is why he answers my call to his IPhone on the first ring, asks how I’m doing, how are the grandchildren. I want to tell him everything about each child, each engaging, miniature package, but instead wax on about what they are not, and how our lives could have been so very different, so much more challenging, if they were different, or if our children, as children, had been differently blessed.

I tell him that our daughter-in-law is reading up on autism. She runs a summer project with kids who have special needs and has picked up some library books. These are on a table, whispering to me. I knock off the Greenspan/Wieder book, Engaging Autism-- the Floortime approach-- in an afternoon while the little ones nap. The model, DIR, uses the language of my generation: Developmental-Individual differences-Relationships. Empathy is the active ingredient. This opens my eyes.

I begin to spin.

If you use

(a) sensory integration; and add
(b) DIR; then mix a heavy dose of
(c) Lovaas and Rimland's ABA, Applied Behavioral Analysis; you would have
(d) a biological-psycho-social-developmental-relationship- empathy-based therapy for children on the autism spectrum.

Perhaps these therapies overlap already. I'm not an expert in any of them, but know that some of us use bits and pieces of them universally with adults and children, not even realizing their efficacy treating autism. I know nothing, is the truth, about autism, am taking what I read at face value, hoping my readers will teach me.

“There’s so much I don’t know,” I lament to FD.

“Reading is so humbling, makes me feel so remiss. It has been too easy, just saying, That’s not my specialty, autism. Reading about it is a reminder that it is harder for so many parents, and we had it so easy, have it so easy, pooh, pooh, pooh, kineye-in-harah (a magic incantation to ward off evil) relative to some.” FD is quiet.

Then we move on, talk about each of the grandchildren, their special traits, their individuation, how different one is from the other. We talk about how they relate as siblings, and how they have gradually come to trust us, people who pop in and out of their lives for these relatively short, but intense visits. Relating to little people who are more than 50 years our junior highlights how humans grow older, but in certain ways, tucked in that gray matter, remain childlike.

The distance, the miles between us, certainly not the age difference, would be a terrible drag were it not for the Internet and Google-video chat. The little ones think we’re on television, on par, or at least in competition with Dora the Explorer.

But without real face time, human to human, nose to nose, it wouldn't mean a thing, not to me, anyway, because the language children speak is play, naturally, and if a person likes to play, then children will follow along, any Pied Piper will do. So I tell FD that we danced, we sang, we ran. And I taught the five-year old how to sit full lotus, something most people can’t do, but she’ll be able to do now, forever.

What wows me the most, I tell him, isn’t the play, and it isn’t the way they interact with one another (and with their parents). It is the intensity of relating, the eye contact.

These kids look at me as if they’re working on memorizing my face, as if they need to tell me that they care, they’re interested. They grab my chin and tell me what they want because they trust this will work.

And yes, they negotiate for me to stay, each time. “Miss your flight,” is one of our jokes. “Just miss it.”

It is miraculous, 
that a child can make a parent, 
a grandparent, feel so unimaginably special. 
When a child looks deeply into your eyes 
you think you must be the only one who matters,
if only for that moment. And it is true.

And when they look away, you wonder what is going on in there.

So we travel for those moments, to find the child is desirous of intimacy. Even at two years old, probably at birth, a child is desirous, has a will to love and be loved, a self wanting to share, for all we know. And when this happens, this intimacy, when we are the object of this desire, it feels deliciously unexpected, precious not only for us, but for the little person, too.

When it doesn't happen, not right away, as is characteristic of autism, it can be terrifying to those who have waited nine months for the arrival, who will continue to wait for the full meal.

When I went to graduate school, even though behavioral therapies were popular, researchers of the psychiatric bible still called the disorders on the autism spectrum pervasive. The prognosis was thought to be bleak and I couldn’t do it, couldn’t go into early childhood work because I knew that you can’t be an early childhood expert and not take on pervasive developmental disorders.

And I think I knew it would drain me. Funny how abuse, neglect, exploitation, trauma—this doesn’t burn me out.  All week long, heart wrenching stories.  But thinking of a childhood disorder as pervasive, a condition that will not change, had an aversive effect. The Greenspan book wasn't around and nobody spoke of sensory integration, nor the refined reward and repetition application of Lovaas and Rimland.

Autism is not the hopeless challenge they made it out to be thirty years ago, not according to these pioneers. Kids with impairments in social functioning are neurologically different, require alternative stimulation, a more quiet, individualized approach. Engaging them isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible. Not surprisingly, it’s all about empathy, learning who the little person is, feeling his feelings, and relating on his level. And that need, the need for intimacy, when it is tickled, awakened, coaxed, tested, is universal and is the way to healing, if there is one.  If I am to believe what I read, and I do.

Ah, we’re about to land. And always a sucker for the arias, I’m listening to Le Nozze di Figaro. But they’re telling me to put away all electronic devices, so just one more snapshot. I'm home. 

That's my house.



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