Joel knows a lot about dinosaurs. His parents are told that he must put a stop to this obsession so he can focus on other subjects. Marcy can sing every Joni Mitchell song but speaks only a few words. She is put in a class for lower-functioning children and taught menial labor skills. My son, Neal, loves bees. He actually picks them up, examines them and then puts them back onto a flower without getting stung. Well-meaning educators and therapists work tirelessly to refocus these children's interests into more "appropriate activities." Time and time again, I've witnessed kids with special needs kicking and screaming when they fail to comply with the norm, and they are coerced away from their preferred interests. As adults, they are taught to sweep floors in a fast food restaurant or stack boxes in a warehouse (not that there is anything wrong with sweeping or stacking).
In this Sunday's The New York Times, writer Amy Harmon shed light on Justin Canha, an artistic, autistic young adult and his transition to adulthood. Major kudos to Justin's parents and support team for viewing Justin's preferred interests in art and cartoon characters as a way for him to earn a living as an adult.
Sometimes I wonder if there is a fine line between autism and certain kinds of genius. Or artistry. Think about it: Anyone who excels at something has to have spent countless hours each day perfecting their craft, art or gift. For instance, if the mother of a young, would-be juggler were to say, "It's inappropriate to toss little balls up and down," no one would ever have the joy of watching an accomplished juggler. Or, think of scientists who spend hours in their laboratories developing cures for all sorts of ills.
How great would it be if every child had mentors who saw a child's strengths as a way toward adult life. This is not a new concept! In "The Republic," Plato urges educators to view a child's early interests and play as serious business that helps prepare a child for adult work. He emphasizes that forced learning cannot remain in the soul. What if parents, educators and therapists saw a child's intense interests in a positive light. Perhaps Joel could become a paleontologist; Marcy could sing in local plays. We homeschool Neal. He is now learning all about bees. In fact, his school curriculum is built around his preferred interests in bees to learn math, science, language, history, etc. His world is expanded by all of us following his intense interests. Perhaps one day he will be a bee keeper or a honey manufacturer. Clearly, the world can benefit from people who are free to explore and enact their obsessions.
Elaine Hall is the author of "Now I See the Moon" (HarperCollins). Her new book, (co-authored with Diane Isaacs) is titled "Seven Keys to Unlock Autism: Making Miracles in the Classroom" Wiley). In stores November 1, 2011. She is the founder of The Miracle Project, which holds classes at Vista Del Mar and The Help Group in Los Angeles, and at the 92nd Street Y in NYC. Visit www.themiracleproject.org.