The little blond boy and I walked together down the stairs of my office building in Bucktown. Step, wait, step, stop. He is tall for his age, and thin. He wears round glasses, giving him a look of intelligence. Look up at the ceiling, glance towards the window, hoping to get a glimpse of an airplane passing by. He is intelligent. Though he doesn’t speak more than a few words, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that this child is taking everything in. Step, step, wait, step, stop. There’s nothing speedy about this process, nor should there be. Due to developmental delays, this child has a significant motor planning challenge, and although his movement is greatly improved and he can even run (on firm ground) when he wants to, there is no hurry to get downstairs and out to the car.
From around the corner of the hallway rushed a muscular, nice-looking man in his 30s. Given his helmet, cycling garb, speed, and perfectly-wrapped mailing envelope, I took him to be a bike messenger. “Let’s move over, buddy,” I said to the child, helping him move closer to the railing. Looking up at the man, I smiled and said, “We take our time.”
The man slowed his pace, saying, “That’s okay.” He followed our choppy walk down the next flight of stairs, watching this child without a trace of pity. Without gawking curiosity. His uncommonly steady gaze was one of unfolding respect and understanding. At the bottom of the stairs, he held the door for us. He saw the child’s caregiver approaching and asked, “Are you coming in here?” and then stepped back to let her in. I don’t know how long he stood by. Had he moved on by the time the child had dropped to the ground, crying in frustration and pinching us because it was time for him to get into the car and he hadn’t spent enough time gazing at the sky? I don’t know.
All I know is that this child touched that man somehow today. I wondered if there was a child with special needs in the man’s family or among his friends. Or was it simply that he was able to respect the effort it takes some of us to walk down the stairs when others are able to scurry down quickly and pedal off onto city streets, relying on rapid decision-making and perfect motor coordination to survive in the urban traffic?
I respect that man greatly for slowing his pace to match the little boy’s, and to offer us assistance in such a positive manner. But my intuition is that the man received more from those few minutes than either the boy or I did. I believe that, in some way, the man was transformed by whatever came over him when he made the decision to walk down the stairs with us instead of ahead of us.
I had the enormous good fortune of viewing the documentary “Autism: The Musical” last Thursday night. This description summarizes it well:
The film follows  children over the course of six months, as they create, prepare and then perform a live musical play on stage. Led by an intrepid acting coach who is herself the mother of an autistic child, this team of children defies their diagnosis. As it follows their journey, the audience not only better understands the nature of what autism is, but celebrates the joyful spirit of each child.
At this point, “Autism: The Musical” is touring a very small number of cities in the United States and is in each city for only 3 days. If I had gone on Tuesday night, I would have made an attempt to go all three nights, bringing more people with me each time. It’s quite possible that I would have completely run out of Kleenex, however. The film is beautiful, honest, and inspiring. I began to dream and scheme of bigger and better things that I could do professionally for families and children with autism immediately. (More on that later.) If you happen to be reading this from San Francisco, it’s playing there this week; it will also be in Boston in a couple of weeks. The website has more information.
It would be difficult to say what I loved best about this film, but one of the most joyful parts for me was to watch the transformation of one of the mothers; this mother described in grim detail the way she initially felt about her daughter’s diagnosis. How her hopes for her daughter’s future were wrapped up in her desire for her child to fit in and to be like everyone else, and how painful her lack of acceptance of who her daughter really was became for both of them. To see this woman let go, relaxing and enjoying her daughter as a teenager – joking and dancing around the house with her – was as heartwarming to me as anything else in the movie. She talked about the fact that having her daughter in her life transformed her into a completely different person; what she was saying was, it changed her for the better.
I can’t speak for a parent of a child with autism, but I too have been changed for the better by the children I work with. My whole notion of success is completely different. I am able to grasp at what might appear to be a fleeting, abstract change in a child’s behavior and see it as an enormous success, something tangible, a solid rung on the elusive developmental ladder. I celebrate the gestures more than the words, the process more than the product, and the social friendships more than the academics. I keep going back for the hugs, the small steps, the joy in the children’s faces. For the warm, loving relationships that the experts like to tell us are impossible for children with autism, but that my colleagues and I are able to cultivate with every single child with this diagnosis.
And for watching a strong, healthy man instantly humbled by a quiet young boy making his way down the stairs on a Monday morning.