There are some things that happen, happy accidents, that could not have been planned.
Like stumbling on the carpet, catching yourself on the the edge of a shelf where, looking behind a small picture frame there, you find a key you lost seemingly years ago that unlocks that bike lock you have lived without all this time.
Call it synchronicity, though not all that is synchronous is peachy. Sometimes it comes disguised – it takes a discerning temperament and hard-won experience to tell the difference.
Sometimes, though, there are things that happen in such long, complex and foreseeing ways that, well, there are no words to describe the properties such unseen components of this life possess.
It happened to me like this:
In the early summer of 1998, upon having just moved back to Seattle, I was actively looking for work in the realm of supporting children on the Spectrum. I met and spoke with no less than a half-dozen researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle University and some other small colleges, both in and out of the city, hoping to connect with someone like-minded, who believed that Autism wasn’t so much a disability as an opportunity to be further explored. I was striking out on all fronts, more or less.
Then, one night, in spite of my spirits being down, I attended a dinner party somewhere near my own house in the Wallingford district. Present among the many people I did not know was a woman and her beautiful, blue-eyed Alaskan Malamute, appropriately named “Azule” for his striking, ice-blue eyes.
This woman came right up to me upon observing my kinetic body language and asked me, point-blank, “Why do you rock like that?”
This was refreshing. My whole life, less confident company around me would stare, make snarky comments in a whisper to their “friends” instead of just confronting me and asking. I knew right away this woman was extraordinary and not just for that reason.
She asked and I told her. I’ve rocked like that since birth. In fact, it is tame now compared to when I was, say, seven, when it would shake the car and rumble the floor. I’m a veritable Obi Wan Kenobi compared to my childhood self. A sovereign citizen of self-control.
She asked a zillion questions, already knowing the answers but waiting patiently for me to confirm them. I had not ever, to that point in my life, been so comfortable being myself around such a complete stranger.
After dinner she slid over next to me and asked me an even braver question: “Would you be interested in coming to visit me where I work? There are some people I’d like to introduce you to and I think you’d understand them perhaps even better than my colleagues and I do.”
She explained where she worked, that she was the Director of Curriculum Development for a private school on Mercer Island that serves high-functioning kids on the spectrum. Many of their kids are “off the charts” when it came to assessing their capacities, she said.
I could relate. I spent a grossly excessive amount of time in my schooling constantly being reassessed in this and that, over and over and over and over again.
I went. It was my first time on Mercer Island (nestled just East of Seattle but West of Bellevue), my first time in a private school for a specialized audience of kids and the first time I had ever seen a bunch of kids who acted, well, just like me.
Some of them rocked back and forth, some of them rubbed their fingers together, some of them were verbal, some not, some appeared otherwise as regular as any other kid. Some did not. Some were profoundly affected by their wiring. They all, however, were engaged in learning in ways I had never seen before.
It blew my mind. School had not been a friendly place for me growing up. It wasn’t sexy to be smart back then like it is now. It was a social curse, especially for someone like me who was intellectually light years ahead of my peers but emotionally light years behind. Here, kids were all kinda wonky, each in their own, unique way. No where, however, did I see anyone making fun of anyone else’s particular brand of odd.
The school, The Children’s Institute for Learning Differences (C.H.I.L.D), was founded in 1977.
Trina Westerlund founded CHILD in 1977 with five students in a church basement. There were no options for kids with sensory issues of any kind back then. Trina was a visionary. She would become one of the most important mentors in my life.
Fast forward to now. The school has a state-of-the-art location that they own, offering children and their families a centralized location for all the key services they may need to be successful: Speech Pathology, Occupational Therapy and more.
From the site:
Our Mission: To provide innovative school programs, therapies and training that promote social, emotional and academic development for children with special needs.
Our Vision: creating a world in which every child succeeds.
CHILD addresses the needs of children often denied access to local education programs due to challenges posed by severe sensory processing disorders, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, emotional-behavioral disabilities, autism, and extreme anxiety. Students are placed at CHILD by their parents or in partnership with school districts and most transition back to their home school districts within 1-3 years.
CHILD provides therapeutic interventions to reach children who would otherwise continue to fail at school. The goal of all CHILD programs is to align the efforts of children, their families and school personnel to increase understanding of learning differences and help children overcome the obstacles to their learning, so they are able to successfully transition back to school programs in their home communities.
At CHILD, the focus is on developing a set of durable core strengths – increased levels of self-regulation, an increased ability to maintain relationships, and increased coping skills – to help children achieve ongoing resilience. CHILD employs a project-based curative curriculum with integrated arts, videography and outdoor education.
CHILD is guided by the belief that “children do well if they can.” CHILD follows the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions ModelSM developed by Dr. Ross Greene which is an empathy-driven, non-punitive, psycho-educational approach to uncovering each child’s strengths. With tools like the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP) developed by Dr. Greene, staff at CHILD learn to identify the triggers for counterproductive behavior as well as each child’s lagging skills. Dr. Greene’s research indicates that children who are challenging are lacking skills, not motivation…skills like flexibility/adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving.
For two years I showed up each day. I showed up and did my best to make learning a friendly exercise for these kids through helping design and build both on and offline curricula, bent to their strengths, rather than some invisible strike zone (ie IQ tests) designed simple to measure how much it’s going to cost to educate them.
For two years, these kids and my colleagues shaped my thinking about learning and functioning optimally in a world that often chooses to ignore differences or make exceptions. A world that most often lacks empathy.
There is no way I could know that, nearly twenty years later, my own little boy would need exactly this sort of understanding and guidance, someone gently holding the reigns of control in order to empower him to discover his own identity, his own relationships to things and how he best learns about them.
If there are words to transmit my gratitude for this experience, I am sure I do not know what they are.
I do know, however, these are principles, values and goals for any culture. Professional cultures can benefit from these tenets just as well as academic environments.
It is my hope and dream that more cultures like this rise up, inspired by this model and others like it. To address each learner on their own terms is to acknowledge that all children (all people, really), and not just ones who need a lil’ extra, can reach their potential through a little encouragement to discover their own learning style – if only we focus on crafting atmospheres that empower them to.