Learning from Chelsea
For most people, ordering off the menu at a restaurant is a pretty simple affair. You scan the menu and then tell the waiter what you want. But for 10-year-old Chelsea, accomplishing this is a major achievement.
Because Chelsea has Asberger's Syndrome, a form of autism, ordering at a restaurant and other social interactions can be very frightening situations. Children with Asberger's just simply do not have the built-in sense of how to act around others. They don't understand why they should say "goodbye" when a visitor leaves.
Families of these children are left in a doubly difficult situation because, as Asberger's Syndrome has only recently been identified, very few specific treatment options are available.
When I began volunteering in Chelsea's home program last fall, I brought a solid knowledge of autism and its treatment to my service. But I had never heard of Asberger's Syndrome, and I had no idea about how to interact with an Asberger's child.
What I didn't realize then was that Chelsea and her family would teach me more than I would ever help her to learn. As I read books about Asberger's Syndrome, I began to gain a better sense of how I could contribute to Chelsea's home program. Above all, working with Chelsea and her family would teach me to be creative and unafraid to try new approaches. Since I could find little information about Asberger's therapies, I made up my own activities.
As the fall semester progressed, my work with Chelsea became a respite from my work at school. I found that I really enjoyed taking a break from that paper I was typing to go be a part of a very special little girl's life. Chelsea's parents also hugely impressed me, as they never once showed any sign of discouragement. Instead, they were extremely encouraging, providing me with helpful suggestions about activities for Chelsea.
By the end of the year, I had grown quite attached to Chelsea and her family. I learned that she loved cheese fries and was crazy about baby animals. Something interesting about autistic children is that they often have a very special unusual talent, and Chelsea rivaled a marine biology teacher in her knowledge of whales. Over the course of nine months, I saw Chelsea make significant improvements in her interactions with others. She even came to visit my dorm and talked with some of my floormates.
While I certainly learned much about Asberger's Syndrome and how to be innovative, my experiences showed me much more. When I see special needs kids at the store or on campus, I know just how special these individuals are. Though we all probably claim to be understanding of special needs, I would advise anyone who is looking to make a difference at Notre Dame to spend time with a special needs child or adult. You just might be surprised by how much you can learn.
All Inside Stories for Tuesday, September 10, 2002