My First Encounter With Autism

Liz Simon - February 19, 2013

"...this was one of the most memorable and remarkable experiences of my life"

I consider it a privilege to be a member of the Ski Santa Fe Adaptive Ski Program. This is a largely volunteer organization of specially trained ski-teachers who place the enjoyment of our sport and mountains within reach of those who would not otherwise have access to it.

This is my second year with ASP and while I may be, in some small way, instrumental in helping a person with special needs to ski, it is minuscule in comparison with the the deep pleasure and satisfaction I have experienced in my interactions with "the students." Sometimes, when I am with them, I hear a silent refrain being repeated in my mind: "Who is the student and who is the teacher?"

Somebody once said that you learn more about yourself as you go along. Personally, I have found that to be true and my experiences with the Adaptive Program are moving that journey along at record speed. But, that is also the normal path for an introverted personality. A little clarification is in order here: I'm thinking more of Carl Jung's idea and definitions of "introverted" and "extroverted." Those words and ideas are his inventions. I don't think he meant "introverted" in the unilateral way in which it has come to be understood in our everyday speech–-that is to say, someone who is very shy and retiring. Instead, I think he meant it to mean someone who sees the world from within, first. In addition to the "introverted thing," the perception of larger patterns and interconnections, is my normal state of mind. It's how I roll.

This week I worked with a young autistic man who I shall refer to only as "Jimmy"–-in order to protect his privacy. Like a lot of Americans, not only did I not know much about this condition which we call autism, but I had never even met or encountered anyone like him. I was concerned at first when the director gave me this assignment during the morning sign-in. I had no background, no insight and no training for such a specialized situation. So, naturally, the anxiety level went up a bit-–but not too much and not for too long. I do have a Pollyanna-like level of confidence in my own intuition to hold me in good stead and that once again proved to be true.

I wasn't within even ten feet of Jimmy for the first time when I knew that I liked him. And also, that on some level which I could not wrap my rational mind around, I felt a connection-–and a big one! It's at times like that when you just simply have to tell your rational mind to take a seat at the back of the bus because you know, instinctively, that it will only get in the way and muck things up if left to wander about.

If you've seen the movie,"The Rainman" with Dustin Hoffman, then you'll have some idea of what Jimmy's speech pattern and thought processes are like. There was the same folded-over, non-linear, repetitive modes of expression that could feel like total chaos at first. I'm pretty good with languages, and I enjoy them, and who knows, maybe that's why I was able to feel comfortable in his world.

As a mother, I was upset at first to see how overly sensitive he was to pain and physical discomfort--–emotional distress too-–his most common refrain being, "Lizzie I can't do this,"-followed with muscular tension and shivering. I don't know how I arrived at the idea of singing with him, but I did and it worked. I can't carry a tune in a basket, but it didn't matter. My colleague who was working with me picked up on it quickly and we all began to sing–VERY loudly. So what if we were in three different keys? The tension dissolved, the negatively flew away and there we were, just three human beings, together, out on the beginner hill, having the uninhibited time of our lives–with everyone on the chairlift looking at us and shouting encouragement!

In yet another tense and trying moment with Jimmy, I don't know why it occurred to me to say,
"Hey Jimmy do you know any French?"
"Oh no, Lizzie, oh no, no I do not know that."
"Well", I said, "Would you like to hear what that sounds like?"
The reply, instant, with enormous enthusiasm was:
"Oh yes, yes, yes, let's hear that, let's hear that."

At this point we had taken Jimmy's skis off and we were all just walking together, arm in arm, strolling down the hill. To remove the skis had been my colleague's idea and it was a brilliant one. He had said to Jimmy, "We're going to take a little walk." And from that came Jimmy's first lesson, and possibly his first exposure to a foreign language: "Eh Jimmy, nous allons faire une petite promenade," I said, eye-to-eye, right into his waiting gaze. I have no idea if the translation was correct because it came off the top of my head in a flash.

Then, I was utterly astounded with how instinctively he picked up on the softness of that language–-sounding NOTHING like an American-–and moreover, how it calmed him down. All the stop-and-go qualities of his speech just vanished and here was this child, first time around, saying with perfect clarity, "Nous allons faire une petite promenade." Took my breath away it did. I know what it's like to try and learn foreign languages and it doesn't come anything near that easy for me.

There is so much more I could tell you about this experience, but maybe this will serve to give a little insight into my experience with Jimmy. After the lesson, in the ski lodge, we all shared sandwiches and Fig Newtons. It's then that I found myself seated directly across from him, eye-to-eyend the strangest thing happened. We just sat there staring deeply into each other's eyes, smiling and laughing sometimes. I have never felt anything like it before in my life and the experience has since awakened me in the middle of night several times. This is an experience which I cannot describe or even begin to make sense of–it was a feeling of deep joy, and oddly enough, of relief. The rational mind reels.

His mom was there at the table at the same time and asked, "What do you think is going on?" I just jokingly blurted out, "Well, maybe my right hemisphere has recognized his right hemisphere, and vice versa…and whuddaya think of that possibility?" She laughed and just said, "Well, maybe, you are in the arts."

Once again I was left wondering, hearing the same ricochetting question: "Who is the teacher here, and who is the student?"

Perhaps some neurologist out there can put this into words better than I have. Nevertheless, this was one of the most memorable and remarkable experiences of my life. I have a hunch that there is a veritable gold mine of beauty in people such as Jimmy. We should not discount it, or them.