Chapter 1. Louise, age 14, Autism
The Power of “Tuning In” and Creating Deep Connections with Children through “Loving Parallel Play”.
Once upon a time, I was invited into a very large institution for special needs children and adults in order to give a presentation about home-based programs. The invitation was extended for me to observe a classroom of about 12 children, all of them on the Autism Spectrum. One teacher and one classroom assistant took care of the children during a six-hour day. Between changing diapers, feeding the children and making sure they didn’t hurt each other, the day was pretty much over.
In one corner of the room I noticed a girl, about 14 years old and I will never forget her name, Louise. She sat on a chair, knees and feet neatly together with her hand resting on her upper thighs, engaged in a back and forth rocking motion, staring at the floor.
I asked the teacher if she would let me try something with Louise. “What do you want to do?” she asked. “I would love to sit next to her and make some kind of a connections with her.” She looked very withdrawn and isolated from the rest of the class, basically, left on her own.
“Oh, good luck” said the teacher, to which I replied: “What do you mean?”
“Well,” the teacher said, “after the bus drops her off in the morning she seeks out her chair and starts rocking pretty much all day. Whenever anybody tries to sit closer to her than about 2-3 feet, she will get up, finding another chair in a different corner, sits down, puts her feet and knees together and start rocking.” “That’s quite alright” I responded. “How much time would you like for your experiment?” the teacher asked. “Could you please give me about 2-3 hours, that would be great.” “Ok” she said “and good luck” she added again.
I took a chair and placed it in the opposite corner of the classroom along the same wall, put my feet and knees neatly together and starting rocking in exactly the same fashion as Louise.
After every 15 minutes or so, I moved the chair a few inches closer to her, put my hands on my knees and continued rocking with her.
In my mind I adopted an attitude of, ‘Louise, if this is what you need to do to take care of yourself, I love you for it, I totally accept you just the way you are and I love rocking together with you. We can do this all day if you’d like.’
Not a word was said, but I noticed that every so often she would give me a quick side-glance. I knew she saw me getting closer ever so slowly. She did not move other than her gentle rocking motion, but clearly saw me getting closer and a little closer and a little closer yet. One and a half hour later our elbows were touching, still rocking together.
Once again, I experienced the power of lovingly tuning into a child’s needs through moving in unison with Louise’s repetitive motions and I thought that the experiment had ended. “Louise, thank you so much for letting me rock together with you. I loved it and will have to go now.” To my surprise, her little hand reached over, grabbing me by my shirt just above the belt and she did not let go of it. She gave me the first direct look, straight into my eyes, as if saying: “Don’t leave me, nobody has ever done this with me.” From that moment on, she did not let go. I had to take her down the hallway, for bathroom breaks at which I had to pry off her fingers and handed her over to a female aide to accompany her to the toilet. As soon as she came back out, my shirt was firmly in her grip again and back to the classroom we went. On our way back looks of puzzlement greeted us from other teachers as they wondered about this stranger with Louise in tow.
Back in the classroom, she sat down right next to me, feet and knees neatly put together and with a smile on her face she waited for me to imitate her, to begin rocking together once more.
At the end of the school day, I took her to the bus stop, pried one finger after the other off my shirt and put her on the bus. Reluctantly she let go leaving me with a beautiful look through the glass in the window. I smiled, waved and noticed a tear running down my cheek. Yes, indeed the connection I felt was deep and strong and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.