My heart grieves the passing of Dr. Stanley Greenspan, whose pioneering work provided hope, inspiration and a proven methodology to support families of children with special needs. Prior to meeting Dr. Greenspan in June of 1997, my then three year-old son Neal, adopted from a Russian orphanage, spun around in circles, banged his head, and lived 95 percent of his time in his "own little world." The professionals in my area had diagnosed Neal as severely autistic, mentally retarded, with the prognosis of a dismal, institutionalized future. Fortunately, we went to see Dr. Greenspan.
I remember our first meeting with Dr. Greenspan as if it were yesterday. He was wearing an old, worn sweater and moccasins. He was kind and sweet and reminded me of Mr. Rogers. His office was a mishmash of broken toys, stacks of papers and books piled high. It was the domain of a warm, absent-minded professor, a disarming, welcoming place that was the polar opposite of the sterile testing facilities we'd been to in Beverly Hills. In the comfort of his office, I felt that we could make no mistakes, that whatever we did would be okay.
Dr. Greenspan didn't put Neal through a battery of tests. Instead, he observed how we played together; he then coached me on how to relate more to Neal. Following his coaching, the room was soon filled with a playful reciprocity between Neal and I. As we played, something amazing happened. For the very first time, Neal looked into my eyes. It was funny, but before this, I didn't even notice that Neal wasn't looking at me. Neal seemed to be aware of me in a way that he never was before.
Dr. Greenspan rejected the notion that a child needs to conform to our world by learning rote behavioral tasks. Instead, he guided me to follow Neal's lead and, with genuine curiosity, "See what he's interested in." In other words, if my son wanted to throw pillows, we should throw pillows with him and turn the activity into a playful pillow fight. If he wanted to run in circles, we should do the same and make a chase game of it. In this way, I would begin to connect to Neal by entering into his world, by meeting him where he lives. Our interactive play was guided by the fundamental idea that children like Neal do not progress by learning "rote behaviors." They progress by forming relationships.
Through relationships, he espoused that children can develop everything that they need: they can learn to engage with others, to communicate with gestures, to use ideas creatively, to think and reflect. Dr. Greenspan's methods shifted the focus from narrow, behavioral goals to broad foundations which he called "milestones" for healthy development. Dr. Greenspan emphasized how important it is to recognize and honor the individual differences in children. Children with autism spectrum disorders or other special needs are by no means the same. Some are over-reactive to touch and sound; some are under-reactive. Some have good visual perception, while others do better with auditory information. In other words, as he says, "If you meet one child with autism, you have met one child with autism." There is no set way to treat these children. The only essential thing is to tailor the learning environment to the child's individual profile.
I was privileged to have known Dr. Greenspan for over a decade. Not only did he help me exponentially with my son (Neal is now 16 years old, still nonverbal, but highly intelligent and totally connected to this world), Dr. Greenspan encouraged me to start my theater program, The Miracle Project, which was profiled in the HBO documentary, AUTISM: The Musical. The same methodology that helped my son so profoundly, we use daily with children and teens who participate in my theater workshops that I hold at Vista Del Mar in Los Angeles. We are dedicating our upcoming performances in memory of the incredible legacy of Dr. Stanley Greenspan. Dr. Greenspan's work brought so many children out of the isolation of autism and provided so many families with hope. May his blessed memory continue to enlighten and inspire.
Please share with us at this post how Dr. Greenspan influenced your life.
Author: Now I See the Moon HarperCollins 2010