The other day I received the following text from my 10-year-old autistic daughter's therapist, Joe:
"Heading your way. Em had a rough day after museum trip. Wants to see you."
First of all, I need to point out that the fact that Emma was able to communicate to Joe that she'd had a rough day is a massive leap forward for her. Secondly, that she was able to then make it known that what she now wanted to do was see me was nothing short of amazing. It required her to identify her feelings. It required her to map out what might make her feel better. It required her to verbally put together the words in such a way that they would be understood. It required her to then verbalize her request.
That same morning on the subway headed to my studio I was reading the memoir by the autist Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, Blazing My Trail, on my iPad. It's a wonderful book, for those who don't know it, and had fully captured my attention when I felt a light tap on my arm. I looked to my left and there sat a woman, about my age or maybe a bit younger, dressed in a suit, clasping a briefcase. "Excuse me," she said. "I get claustrophobic in subways, especially when they stop, and it helps if I have someone to talk to. Do you mind?"
"Oh," I said, surprised by her directness, but also relieved that she seemed genuine (this was New York City after all). She was clearly frightened that our train had come to a halt in the middle of the tracks, something I hadn't even noticed until she tapped my arm. I closed my iPad and turned toward her. "Sure," I said. Not at all sure what to say next, but because I had just been reading Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg's memoir in which she talks about wishing people would just ask how they might help, I asked, "What can I do?"
"Just talk," she said. To help me along she motioned to my iPad and asked, "What were you reading?"
So I told her about the book I was reading and how much I was enjoying it. We then talked briefly about autism, something she knew almost nothing about. I asked her where she was headed. She told me about a business meeting she was on her way to in Rockefeller Center and how she was nervous about it. And then the train began to move again. She took a deep inward breath and exhaled, shutting her eyes momentarily before opening them again and smiling at me. "Thank you for being so kind and talking to me. You have no idea how much it helped." At the next stop she got up. I wished her luck, and as I sat watching her leave I thought about how wonderful it was that she had figured out what she needed to do to help herself through, what was clearly, a stressful situation. I thought about Emma and how I hoped she too would one day be able to express herself in a similar way. I thought about Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg and how she has learned, through a great deal of trial and error, to get her needs met, and I thought about how hard it is for so many of us to know what we want, let alone muster up the courage to ask for help.
Not eight hours later I received Joe's text: "Em had a rough day after museum trip. Wants to see you."
And it occurred to me, in that moment, that the woman on the subway had helped me more than I could possibly have helped her.
For more on Emma's journey through a childhood of autism, go to: Emma's Hope Book.
For more by Ariane Zurcher, click here.
For more on autism, click here.