Every Thursday afternoon I volunteer at my son's class. He's four years old and has been diagnosed as a high functioning autistic, most likely with Asberger's Syndrome. If you are told that your child is autistic, that's about the best diagnosis you can hope for, so my wife and I feel very fortunate. He's a very loving, very intelligent, very wonderful little boy.
My son is in a developmental preschool program with nine or so other children whose diagnoses fall along a similar spectrum. Some have greater physical challenges, some greater speech and mental challenges, and some you would not suspect have issues at all until you see them emotionally disturbed.
Generally I assist the physical therapist in working with small groups of children from the class and help the teacher and her aide run the classroom. This involves helping children with craft projects, doing some individual occupational therapy with them, and a lot of taking kids to the bathroom.
I also volunteer every other Tuesday morning for my daughter's Highly Gifted 3rd/4th grade class. This is also a small group of ten children, but these kids are considered to be on the high end of the spectrum, with skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic far above their age peers. At the same time, these children are also fragile in their own ways. Some have trouble making friends, some have attention deficit or sensory overload issues, and some (like my daughter, in many ways) are simply young children struggling with expectations of social maturity based on their academic achievement rather than their real age.
I find these volunteer experiences very rewarding. The specific nature of my interaction with these two sets of children is very different. In my son's class he is the only child who can read. Some of them have trouble with identifying basic colors and shapes. In my daughter's class there are children who can multiply in base three and read at a very high level.
But my basic goals in each class are basically the same. I help the children individually, I praise their achievements, I try to ease their self-consciousness about their eccentricities by accepting them as they are, and I try to make them laugh. Sometimes it is challenging and frustrating. But it puts my mind in a place that is very healthy.
The teachers have a much greater challenge than I do. They need to think about the overall progress each child is making, which with these children is typically a very individualized set of benchmarks and goals. In much the same way I have to keep a careful eye on the progress of my own children in and out of the classroom. I have to be prepared to meet and advocate for their special needs on a constant basis.
But when I volunteer, all I do is think about what will make this particular child happy or successful right now. And I find the easiest way to do that is to love them for that moment as selflessly as I can. I just try to accept them, because in many ways these children are outsiders. Yet they are still young enough that if you treat them with kindness and patience, they will let you in and tell you what they need or want.
There is a girl in my son's class who can't really speak, at least not intelligibly. She's quite shy and has some sensitivities to touch and temperature that can make her uncomfortable at times. But she watches the world around her closely. One day I stumbled across a little game I could play while swinging her on the therapy swing at the start of class that would make her burst into peals of laughter like the chiming of little bells. Now she smiles at me and asks me for help in her singsong voice whenever I am in the class. I can't always help her. Sometimes I'm not allowed to, because she needs to master certain self-reliance skills. Often I can't even understand what she wants from me. But she trusts me, and that trust is a wonderful gift.
A boy in my daughter's class is somewhat emotionally fragile. He's prone to stepping away from the group and isolating himself when he feels embarassed about a situation. During a school Christmas party I saw him pull away to the corner of the room. So I went over to sit by him. We sat next to each other in silence as I tried to think about what to say to console, encourage, or cheer him. Then it dawned on me that for the moment being there was enough. After a while I asked him about the pattern on his shoes, then the picture on his shirt, giving him a chance to be the expert, to teach me, to feel a little confident again. And then I thanked him for sharing with me. He went back to the group and started to play with the others.
And the thing was, I was grateful to him for sharing with me. Being helpful was the best feeling that I had that entire day. And not just because I gave to someone else. It was as though I reached back through time and gave encouragement to the lonely and isolated little boy that I often was.
I try, with limited success, to remind myself on a daily basis to embrace the people I love with love in my heart. To see their frailties and mistakes with compassion and understanding. To see myself and my own mental and emotional challenges in the faces of my children. To try to be helpful because, in truth, it simply isn't always possible to help another person, though you want to with all your heart. So the opportunities to help those you love are little gifts that make life more meaningful.
And maybe, in the end, to become a better person. Because for all the ascetic teachings in the world and the tales of lone artists pursuing their passion, I don't think you fulfill your true promise as a human being on your own.