When our son Jacob was two years old he was evaluated as moderately to severely autistic. At the time, this diagnosis meant there was no hope that he would ever read, tie his shoes or even be able to reach out to us as parents and hug us again. We sought out every avenue we could find to help our little boy. We surrounded ourselves with doctors and specialists, all of which were fiercely fighting to bring Jacob back into our world. A barrage of therapists came to our home and trained their focus on his lowest skills. Their protocol included things like teaching him to put a ball in a cup, a skill that sadly one of the younger children from the tiny daycare I was running could easily do. By the time Jacob was two and a half, he had the standard course of therapy. It consisted of 40-plus hours of early intervention followed by speech, developmental, physical and occupational therapies.
That spring, on the first warm day of the year, Jacob was sitting with a trusted therapist at our kitchen table when I decided to take the children in the daycare out to play in the sprinkler. After a long winter spent cooped up indoors, the sight of them laughing and playing, their pudgy toes slipping on the grass as they became soaked by the spray of water, hit me hard. We were so busy trying to “fix” Jacob that we were forgetting to let him enjoy his childhood. By spending so much of our time working on the things that challenged him, we were not giving him the time to do the things every child at his age needed to do to develop and grow.
I made a decision that day that meant going against protocol to spend the time with Jacob, to prioritize those simple childhood moments. More than one therapist probably thought I had lost my mind. But I had never been more certain that I was doing the right thing for my son.
It was this decision to celebrate childhood that I would later credit with every moment that followed in parenting my son. Unexpectedly, Jacob began to emerge from his autism. His progress in therapy boggled the minds of his entire developmental team. Gone were my days of working on his challenges and being consumed by a diagnosis. Instead I would focus on what my son was showing me he COULD do.
What is even more remarkable was that as I applied this method with the other children in my daycare, taking the very things they loved and were naturally drawn to and celebrating them to the utmost, I found that every single one of them outstripped every expectation that anyone could possibly have for them. It was this way that I learned to find the spark in a child, follow it wherever it may lead, and watch as it led every single last one of them to their very own beautiful place in life. I believe that this dazzling possibility is in every child, and it’s one that I explore in my new memoir, The Spark. I hope the telling of my son’s journey of overcoming incredible odds will help other families who are dealing with similar situations. I invite you to read my book and share it with other parents and teachers in your community.