Ever since I became interested in a career involving autism I imagined myself working with very young children. I know that early intervention is one of the best ways to promote healthy development in children with autism, so working with one and two-year-olds always seemed like my only option. Or so I thought…
Everything changed last semester. I will never forget the first day of my internship at the Manville School in Boston, MA. I sat in the back of the class of middle-schoolers with autism, quietly observing and taking it all in. Three teachers circled the room, helping their small group of eight boys to remain quiet and focused. I noticed one boy, Alan,* was having the most difficulty paying attention. A teacher handed him tickets when he sat quietly in his desk, and took them away when he started laughing loudly or interrupting the class with his favorite lines from SpongeBob. (I later learned that enough tickets earned Alan a coveted prize—an old set of car keys.)
During health class, the head teacher was leading a lesson about the brain. She asked the class, “What part of our body helps us to think?” It was hard for me to tell if the boys didn’t know the answer or simply weren’t paying attention, but they all stared back at her blankly. After a brief pause, all eyes were on Alan as his hand shot straight into the air. “Yes, Alan?” the teacher asked. “Brain cells,” he replied flatly, “Brain cells help us to think.”
Out of nowhere, a chorus of shouts and cheers echoed throughout the room. The noise came so suddenly I nearly jumped out of my seat. All three teachers jumped up and down, wildly dancing around the room shouting, “Alan! You did it! We’re so proud of you. Great job!” Alan’s expression shifted from bored indifference to a wide grin as he realized the sudden celebration was in his honor. At fifteen years old, this was the first time Alan ever raised his hand to answer a question.
After that first day at Manville, watching three teachers help Alan celebrate such a significant accomplishment, I knew that my original ideas about helping children with autism were totally inaccurate. I think a lot of people share the same perception that I did—that early intervention is not just the best, but the only opportunity to help children with autism learn and grow. Now I know that is far from true.
A lot of people have this idea that there is some sort of invisible “window” of time when it is possible to help children with autism. After about age five or six the “window” closes, and any further therapy or other efforts are useless. I think we need to take this idea of a “window” and throw it out the window. Early intervention is extremely important, but there is no age when a child shuts off and can no longer improve. I am now opening myself up to more experiences working with older children and teens on the spectrum, because I’ve realized that it is never too late to impact the lives of people with autism.
*I changed this name for the post.