Monday, September 27, 2010

My Wonderfully Stimming Wife

As many of you know, my wife Iris spends most days playing with children with autism. Although one might normally use the word 'working', for Iris it is indeed 'play'. When people find out what Iris does, they often respond with something on the order of, "Wow, that must be terribly challenging work!" or "I know someone in special education and it's quite draining."

When I explain that Iris always comes home energized after playing with her little friends or that she sees it as 'play' and not as 'work', it frequently stops the conversation in its tracks. People simply don't know how to respond to such a bizarre statement.

I can make out bits and pieces of what's going on for them... Of course it's challenging. Of course it's difficult. Of course it's draining. You clearly don't have a clue about how terrible it is to have a child with autism... to work with children with autism.

Some people respond directly challenging my assertion, "Oh, Iris must be a very strong person. Working with kids with autism takes a tremendous amount of energy. She must really feel it at least sometimes."

Others respond less directly talking about others they know, "Well, my cousin works at a school for special needs children and she often comes home at the point of tears."

A very few respond inquisitively asking, "What do you mean comes home energized?" or "How is it that she doesn't feel drained?"

Iris of course typically answers these questions herself, but the other night I was thinking about it from an observer's perspective.
Why is that Iris doesn't come home drained or disheartened or upset?
I came up with several reasons.

Nothing Special, Nothing Wrong
The first thing that occurred to me is that Iris doesn't seem to notice that there's anything wrong with the kids she plays with. Sure, she knows that one child struggles with this and another with that, but she seems to see it just as she sees herself struggling with getting from nine-mile runs to thirteen-mile runs.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong or even different. Everyone has challenges. Some are more typical than others. But there's nothing about atypical challenges that makes them fundamentally different from typical challenges. You just encounter them less frequently.

Since Iris view challenges generally as a good thing, perhaps even a raison d'ĂȘtre and since she doesn't discriminate among challenges, the situation is more than not draining, it's actually energizing.

A Friend in Need
The second thing that occurred to me is that Iris truly considers these kids to be friends. She doesn't see them as children she works with, she sees them as friends she plays with.

Iris often describes one little boy as the only person on the planet who gets her jokes. She'll come home and share their discussions with me, laughing loudly as she repeats the 'funny' parts and describing him rolling on the floor, laughing. I'll often laugh too, but it's not because I actually get the joke. It's just so much fun to see how excited and happy she is.

What's So Different?
The third thing that occurred to me is that Iris and her friends aren't so different from one another. Iris can spend hours mesmerized in activities that many would call "stimming" (a repetitive body movement that is hypothesized to stimulate one or more senses and is common to children with autism.)

Fortunately for Iris, many of her stimming activities are what others would also consider to be highly productive. Rather than rocking or flapping her fingers in front of her eyes, she'll organize accounts in a spreadsheet or prepare packets of information for mailing. Also fortunately, Iris finds these highly productive activities to be relaxing.

Iris faces some of the same sensory challenges common to kids with autism. When we go out to eat, we often sit at the bar. Bars often have televisions positioned for patrons to watch sports events, etc. I've learned that if I want Iris to talk actually hear anything I'm saying, it's best to position her back to the television.

Draining or Energizing?
In the end, watching Iris, I've concluded that there's nothing inherently draining about working with a child with autism. In fact, there's nothing inherently draining about any challenge. There are just challenges. Some are common, some not. Some are typically viewed as unfair or draining or terrible, others not.

Just challenges.

Happy Challenging Monday!


  1. I love it, Teflon… very perceptive take on what replenishes or drains energy. This particularly hits home for me, as I just returned from an hour in my son’s school. Rithvik (my son with autism) started school for the first time about a month ago, and today was my first opportunity to observe him in class (in two different settings). Quite a difference from how we ‘work’ with him at home! One teacher I saw had a light and easy manner, and seemed to be having a good time herself. The other teacher, though, was the opposite – nothing remotely resembling a smile on her face, no positive feedback or celebrations, fairly stiff and closed body language, etc. If I had to bet, I’d say she’d be the kind of special-ed worker that feels drained at the end of the day. When working with other people, I think it makes a huge difference whether you’re going with them or against them. And if you frame your intention in a combative way – I’m going to teach this kid this thing whether he likes it or not – then you end up seeing the stimming as an unwelcome interruption, and then the whole interaction becomes a draining struggle. Add to this the overwhelming structure (& pressure) that comes along with being in the school system. Contrast that with the easy, fun mode in a child-centered and play-based modality, where the destination is strong and clear, but the path is extremely flexible and non-time-bound.

  2. Sree, as I read your comment, it occurred to me that the lessons learned from working with kids with autism apply pretty much to everything, any person, any situation.

    Apply pressure to achieve, work against the grain, view the challenge as bad and voila!

  3. I find it difficult to motivate people to do tasks that I do not like myself - so this week I'll find all the reasons on earth why time-registration is fun ...


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