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What I Learned From Working With Children Who Have Autism

Imagine this, you go into a classroom to work with one child. This child doesn’t have a clue who you are. The moment you step into the room, the child screams, cries, pushes you away, drops his body to the ground and avoids you at all costs.

“It’s okay! You’re okay!” You try to comfort the child with a soft voice and conjure up all the kind words and phrases you can think of. None work.

“Do you want to play with bear?” You show the child a stuffed animal, hoping to calm him down. He takes the bear from your hand, throws it across the room, and continues to cry.

“Don’t do that!” Because telling that to a child works.

Well it might, but it’s too bad the child doesn’t understand what you’re saying. Actually the child is also nonvocal–he can’t properly enunciate words.

These are the types of children I worked with for the last 5 months. Today was my last day.

Each child’s case varied on the broad spectrum of autism, but there was one common thread that tied together each case: it was about communication.

It was about helping each child learn to communicate their needs and wants. Something as simple as “I’m hungry.” Or being able to count to five so they can tell you how many cookies they want.

Teaching is easy right? Not exactly (I wanted to quit the first day). Easy is the last word I would use to describe teaching when communication is the main issue to begin with. The thing is, as much as I tried to help and teach each child, they actually taught me a lot (probably more than I taught them). They reminded me of the basic life lessons I must carry on throughout life.

1. Patience. Have it. When you work with someone who can hardly understand “sit down,” you can probably imagine how difficult the rest will be. The key is to be patient. No matter how high your standards. No matter how quickly you would learn. No matter how frustrated you get. It’s all about patience.

One day a child can say her name, the next day she might not. One day she can finish a five piece puzzle on her own, the next day she might not. I wasn’t making progress and celebrating everyday with each child I worked with. I went weeks without seeing progress (and that’s pretty good).

2. Mindfulness. Practice it. Patience doesn’t stand on it’s own. You must be mindful of your own thoughts. Angry? Why are you angry? It’s not the child’s fault he can’t distinguish between the letters A and B. Frustrated? You’re only frustrated because you expect so much of someone without understanding the challenges they must face. Are you blaming the parents for not taking good enough care of the kid? Imagine the single mom who has to work, take care of her own mother, in addition to her two children. Be mindful of your thoughts. Withhold judgment.

Thoughts, positive or negative, are natural. The important thing is to be conscious of those thoughts and understanding why you have them.

3. Empathy not sympathy. So the child has autism. It’s not about feeling sorry for her. It’s about saying, “Hey, I know it must be difficult for you to learn all these things I’m trying to teach you, but I’m here to help,” then actually taking the time to help her. The child isn’t a poor soul in need of a blessing. It’s about understanding the child as another human being and, as difficult as it may be, seeing her on a level ground, eye-to-eye.

Look at the situation from the other person’s perspective. I imagined not being able to distinguish between the numbers 1 from 2. I imagined the difficulty of not understanding how to put on my clothes. Then I understood what I was doing to help.

4. Meaningful work isn’t glamourous. I wanted to help kids. I didn’t expect it to be nearly as difficult or frustrating. But that’s the case for any type of work where you strive to make a change or improve the lives of others. The work isn’t glamourous–it’s not fun, but it’s worth it in the end. I would end sessions covered in sweat because I had to constantly keep the child from running around, jumping on chairs and dropping to the ground to throw a tantrum.

If you want to create change in the world or in someone’s life, be prepared to be frustrated. Be prepared to spend plenty of time figuring out how to approach the situation. Be prepared to be pushed mentally and emotionally.

5. It never was and never will be about you. I didn’t go home to post on Facebook about the progress I made with each child. That would mean bragging about my achievement with my kid, and how hard I worked, and why you should pay attention to me and praise me. No. It wasn’t about me. It was about the child and his progress.

When you do anything for the sake of others, take yourself out of the picture. Focus on how you’re helping the other person, not how helping the other person makes you a good person.

Instead of saying, “Wow! I helped you do a good job!” Focus on saying “Wow! You did great!”

The basic things in life are the easiest things to overlook. We overcomplicate matters and forget that, in many cases, it’s all about the basics.