I am a home interventionist who works with children on the spectrum, and in July I was scheduled to visit Elliot, whom I’ve worked with for the past couple of years. It was sticky hot, but I decided to brave the heat and ride my bike, because in my work I try to follow the motto of Dr. Stanley Greenspan, the pioneering psychiatrist who said we must “follow the child’s lead.” Elliot is a teenager who has an affinity for things that spin: fans, wheels, carousels. In our sessions, he takes the lead, and we explore the spinning whirlwind that is New York City.
On this particular weekend, we decided that we were going to adventure to the Central Park Carousel. Elliot was, as usual, incredibly eager to get out the door once we came up with a plan. I asked him at the door in my typical trying-to-be-helpful fashion, “Elliot, do you have everything you need?” Elliot responded with an emphatic, “Yes!” His father asked him again, “Now, Elliot, are you sure you have everything you need?” “Yes!” Elliot said.
Typically, what we do in this situation is help him think through all the possibilities. We would ask him what he needs, which amounts to reminding him of all the things he forgot: a certain amount of money for the carousel ride, and a NYC yellow metro card (he uses a green student metro card during the week.) Today was different though, because his father and I decided to let him learn instead. We left the house with nothing.
When we got to the train station after a laborious trek of 12 New York City blocks on this sweltering afternoon, Elliot reached into his pocket, opened his wallet, and realized that he did not bring a yellow metrocard. He thought about it for a second and then said, “Buy a yellow metrocard.” I asked him if he had any money, and he shuffled around in his wallet and then replied: “No.”
He paused and thought about it for about 5 minutes, and then a determined expression appeared on his face. “Aaron and Elliot will go back home, and make sure we get the Metrocard. Ask Daddy for some money. Next time, I will remember!” he said.
Watching Elliot make this connection was remarkable, and confirmed a powerful lesson that I find myself learning over and over again. Sometimes, my own desire to help make a situation easier for a child and for myself is actually what prevents learning. I didn’t want to walk all the way back to Elliot’s house in the heat, but I knew it was an important part of the learning process. Letting kids struggle and figure things out for themselves requires tremendous patience, but it promotes what we want our kids to be: independent thinkers, and advocates for themselves!
On my ride home, I was thinking about how I learned to ride a bike. At some point the day came when my training wheels came off. I wanted them off; all of the big kids in my neighborhood rode two-wheel bikes. I remember feeling terrified, but I could ride, to my surprise, and the sense of total freedom was extraordinary, although I was a little wobbly at first.
We have to find moments to take the training wheels off and empower kids on the spectrum to ride the bike of life.
Aaron Feinstein is the Director of The Miracle Project New York, an inclusive musical theater based socialization program for children with autism and developmental disabilities, and the Executive Director of Actionplay which provides training for museums and cultural centers to develop compassionate and sensory aware educational programming for children with autism and developmental disabilities. He is also a dedicated home-based developmental interventionist.