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The universal logo for most autism awareness movements is a brightly colored puzzle piece. The disorder is consistently discussed in terms of unknowns. Why do persons with autism have a difficult time communicating with others? Why are they so gifted in some ways, but not others? They are seen as an enigma wrapped in a layer of bewildering unknowns and contradictions, clearly labeled as “other.” I often wonder: If they are so unknown and so puzzling, what does it say about me that I have not only chosen to dedicate my life to connecting to children with autism, but also love doing so every day? There are few places I would rather be than in the shared imagination of a child with autism.
Children with autism are often painted as “living in their own world.” As an occupational therapist who works with children every day, I wonder, aren’t we all living in our own worlds? We are all really just navigating our worlds through a universe of various and diverse planets, some of which look more like our own than others. The difference is that children with autism inhabit their worlds with full conviction. Difficulties typically occur when the wants and needs of others seem to intrude upon their world. Each world is uniquely beautiful.
My daily Buddhist practice allows me to enter each day with a tremendous sense of joy that I have been given the gift of working with children with autism.
Johnny’s world is made up of pictures that I could never imagine on my own. It’s a world full of movement. Johnny jumps and spins, twirls his fingers in circles and leaps in the air out of pure joy. When I enter Johnny’s world by spinning and leaping with him, I am respecting that his world has equal worth to mine. Marcy’s world is based in movies she’s seen. We speak only in movie references. Without taking the time to truly experience her world, it’s nearly impossible to communicate with her. One can’t enter another’s world without completely valuing it for what it is. I do not attempt to change the worlds my students live in; I assimilate without inhibition and share in the experience. Marcy sees me enter her world and smiles as she shows me where Shrek and Fiona are sitting for tea. After twirling in his world for a while, Johnny is willing to join mine. He writes his name, completes his math problems and beams with pride when he does well. Entering my world takes imagination as well. For Johnny and Marcy, the educational system is as foreign to them as their worlds are to outside spectators.
related article Nurturing the Future by Fred Asamoah Mireku and Fueanglada Songmanee Two teachers, one from Ghana and the other from Thailand, talk about how their practice of Buddhism influences their approach as educators. In the world of education, there is little leaping and jumping. There is sitting and listening and a labyrinth of rules and expectations. However, upon sharing worlds, a revolving door is opened. It is built on the foundation of respecting and loving others exactly as they are. It is based in seeing the Buddha inherent in all lives, no matter what their worlds look like. It allows for human connection, even when it seems that human connections are impossible.
My daily Buddhist practice allows me to enter each day with a tremendous sense of joy that I have been given the gift of working with children with autism. While chanting in the morning, I always chant to be genuine, connected and authentic in every human interaction. I chant to embrace my own unique qualities and the qualities of the children I work with. I spend time working directly with families and their children with autism. I enter their worlds, full of financial strain, doctor’s visits, temper tantrums and strange looks from strangers in the grocery store. I imagine what they must be dealing with day in and day out. I then encourage parents to play just as their child plays, even if it seems silly or messy or doesn’t make much sense.
I’m often asked what I do for a living. I always have a difficult time putting my response into a concise statement because, truly, what I do is share in the worlds of families so they can be happier. And that’s hard to put in a résumé, but makes perfect sense in the realm of Buddhism.
Courtesy July 2014 issue of the SGI Quarterly.