I work with a toddler who may be “on the spectrum“. It’s too soon to say for certain what a diagnosis would look and sound like, and it’s much too soon to say for sure exactly who this sweet boy will be in later life. He’s receiving some wonderful intervention and support therapies, in addition to the exceptional care and support offered to him every single day by his mom and dad. He’s going to be just fine. In fact, he’s going to be fairly exceptional, it’s plain to see. I can see it in his bright blue eyes that beam into mine with wisdom and understanding. I can feel it in his gentle embrace of my neck before his nap each day. I can hear it in the voices of his parents when they greet him at the end of the day, exhaling with, “I missed you, buddy.” He’s going to be just fine.
That is not to say he will not face challenges unique to his situation. That is not to say that his parents won’t (continue to) lose sleep sometimes, worrying, wondering. The fact is, he’s not exactly who people expect him to be, and that will be difficult at times.
This boy was originally “scheduled” to transition out of my program and into the room next-door several months ago, due to his age. Instead, we kept him with us, where he was just starting to feel comfortable and confident, so that we could support him in emerging a bit more from his shell. At the time, we didn’t know that he may be “on the spectrum”. What some would now call warning signs or symptoms at the time looked like possible and predictable separation anxiety and uncertainty about his new environment. It’s never easy for children to adjust to a group care setting (even when it looks to be “easy,” there is generally more churning under the surface) and part of my job is to slowly melt through the shields of anxiety, stress, confusion, and fear to find out who that child really is and attune myself to their rhythms and needs.
It’s been an unexpected journey to the heart of this little boy. I have treasured it. I could write pages and pages on what he has taught me about himself and about myself along the way, but instead I write pages and pages of notes to help his new caregivers understand him (to help them to love him, like I love him) because the time has come for him to transition out of my care. It’s difficult to accept that someone else is going to be taking care of him and that they’re going to care for him differently than I do. They’re going to care for him with their own philosophy, their own agenda, and their own ideas about what is best for him. He and I will both have to set forth with some trust in the process and in humanity.
It’s my belief that young children should not have to learn to conform to the way that I, as a teacher and caregiver, want them to be. Their only task, in my care, is to be their perfect selves. It’s my job to be who they need me to be and to create the environment that best suits them. That’s one of the things that makes my job a joy to do. Every day is different. Each child is a new challenge, a new experience. This beautiful boy in my care does not have problems that require fixing. He’s not an issue to be resolved. He’s perfect. While I, as a teacher, and his parents, as parents, want him to be the best possible version of himself, we realize that this is subjective. He can be only himself. He’ll change and grow and develop in ways we can’t even fathom today, as we see him before us now, less than two years old. There’s no stopping the process. There’s really no controlling it, although we’ll try, sometimes without even realizing it. All we can really do is influence the path he follows.
The best advice I can give to his new caregivers is to follow him, come alongside him, and reach out a hand. This is the best advice I can give to all caregivers. Just slow down and learn who this child is, at their core, before you make decisions about what you think they need. As Magda Gerber said, “Observe more. Do less.” There are times, in my work, that I feel like we’re all in a hurry to diagnose and intervene and arrange for services for every possible “issue” that could arise. This is not to say that early intervention does not have a very important place — I truly believe that it does and I’ve had the opportunity to see this good work in action, getting very real results. But I also think that too many caregivers look more for the “problem” than they do for the person. I believe that we sometimes waste time and energy on trying to fix things and change individuals who we could learn something from, exactly as they are.
On the days that this little boy is so deep inside himself that he seems unreachable, it’s on me to set aside my agenda and honor who he is. Sometimes he has a need to retreat (don’t we all?). I wish I knew where he goes and what he sees there, deep inside his own thoughts. Sometimes I sit close by and just watch quietly, but sometimes I can’t resist tossing him a line. Once in awhile, he’ll grab on and allow me to pull him back to the surface, where I wait. He does that for me, I think, because he’s perfectly content in his own thoughts, deep inside, but he recognizes my need. (It’s his recognition and acknowledgement of that need that makes me realize, upon reflection, that he will be okay, out there in the world without me.)
When I look at him, I think of all of the adults I know today who are “on the spectrum”. They’re at both ends: at one end, a highly successful attorney with a young family; at the other, a woman living in a group home with a very small, very insulated world around her. Here is what they all have in common — they all have love, support, and passionate, diverse interests. They all have things that make them laugh and things that make them cry. They all have things they’re really very good at it. Some of them have had years of intensive therapies and some of them didn’t even have a diagnosis until they were well-established in life. They’re all okay. They’re all perfect and unique, like you and I and my young friend, about to fly.