I continue to find myself passionately fascinated by autism: perhaps not the condition itself as much as the extraordinary people and stories that I encounter as I continue to read and to reflect on my own experiences with those on the spectrum through my work as a dance and writing teacher.

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Dr Hanz Asperger, after whom a particular diagnosis was named until the DSM-V was issued in 2013, referred to his young patients as his “little professors.” He noticed that these young children, despite exhibiting challenges in the social arena, nonetheless demonstrated extraordinary intelligence, maturity, and inspiring fascination with the objects of their attention. Indeed, I have found that one of the most affirming and effective techniques that you can employ in working with children (or anyone) on the spectrum is to treat them as you would a respected adult. By being mindful of the fact that there is a unique brilliance within us all, sometimes all an individual needs is affirmation there is someone out in the world who takes them seriously and understands them on their own terms.

I have a student right now at my dance studio, age 10, who is on the spectrum. She is in a group class and also is working on a solo so I see her for an additional thirty minutes a week one-on-one. I’ll call her Billie.

By being mindful of the fact that there is a unique brilliance within us all, sometimes all an individual needs is affirmation there is someone out in the world who takes them seriously and understands them on their own terms.

I so look forward to my time with Billie. She is high-functioning (although we all need to be questioning the validity of such distinctions for a variety of reasons that I might consider in another post). She is a very chatty and cheerful child, who looks forward to her “time with Mr Jesse,” as she has told me. She always shares what is going on in her life and at school. She even brings in projects or writing that she wants me to see. Billie also has a wonderful sense of humor and I love that she “gets” and laughs at my jokes that other neurotypical children her age simply don’t appreciate.

I know that one reason Billie values her solo time is that she feels understood in that space. I make an effort to validate her thoughts, experiences, stories, jokes, and questions. I say “make an effort” but I don’t mean that it is an exceptional challenge for me to understand and meaningfully respond to Billie. Rather, aware of her placement on the spectrum, I act very naturally and kindly toward her but I make sure that my warm and positive intentions are rendered clearly and obviously to her. I also check for comprehension and rephrase if she seems to not have understood something that I have said. Sometimes that’s as simple as looking for a glimmer in her eye when I have paid her a compliment or told her how happy I was with her progress.

Billie has an extensive vocabulary that extends well beyond that of the average neurotypical ten-year-old. I remember several years ago—she must have been seven or eight at that point—she was working hard on a step that can be kind of tricky even for adults: the Charleston. It was going to go into the choreography for her recital dance and she was determined to make sense of it. We were spending a significant amount of time working not this one step, but it was an entirely pleasant experience with she and I both exhibiting patient care as we tried it over and over again. We made the making of mistakes perfectly acceptable by laughing them off. Suddenly, she blurted out, “I’m getting the left pretty good, but apparently the right leg doesn’t want to cooperate!” I burst out laughing, agreeing with her, which made her brighten her facial expression even more. I was struck with this young child’s correct use of of the adverb “apparently” as well as her characterization of her right leg as “not wanting to cooperate!”

“Tell that right leg to stop being naughty!” I responded while laughing and she giggled as well. The lighthearted atmosphere, the deflection of blame onto the leg instead of onto herself, and the calm and safe space we had created, all meant that Billie could enjoy her time working on a rather challenging maneuver. The challenge was fun not stressful and our time in the studio was enjoyable, not anxiety-inducing.

One theme that Remrov and Prizant (please see my previous post) emphasize in their work is that autistic people, often in great earnest, are merely trying to make sense of a world that was not designed with their needs in mind.

But—you’ll find that there are as many different needs, preferences, ways of thinking, and ways of learning as there are human beings. And it takes only a tiny bit of patience, mindfulness, and positive intention in order to give our students—any student—the validation and safety of space that they need in order to thrive. I’ll continue to share my observations and thoughts here.

I welcome anyone reading this blog to please not hesitate to comment or send me a message. Perhaps those of us who have an interest in autism and the arts (and I do intend for this category to be as broad and inclusive as possible!) can begin to form a kind of community and learn from each other. I know that, in addition to reading as much as I can, being in a community of interested and intelligent others can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Please reach out and share your experiences, your thoughts, your tips and techniques, or your questions! Let’s grow together and we’ll change the world!