By Jonathan Slack, Market Research & Development Specialist, AHSS
Years ago when my bar mitzvah was coming up, I did not believe for a second that my autistic sister Jennifer would be able to sit for the whole ceremony. In hindsight, I should not have underestimated Jennifer. She never ceases to amaze me.
My mom had a plan to ensure Jennifer would sit quietly during my bar mitzvah. A year before the ceremony, we started taking Jennifer to the temple to practice “good bar mitzvah behavior” while I would practice reading from the podium (just as I would during the actual big day). My mom, without knowing it, implemented some aspects of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and broke down each different behavior Jennifer would have to exhibit to successfully attend.
As the year went on, we kept adding new aspects for Jennifer to practice: how to ask for her toys quietly, having “quiet arms”, standing up at the appropriate times without jumping and running around, and going to the bathroom before she entered the temple. And that is just a brief outlook on the many different behaviors Jennifer practiced. At the end of each session, if Jennifer did a good job, I would take her hand and run with her around the temple parking lot.
Eventually my big day came, but it was also a big day for Jennifer. She was amazing! Even now, it is among her best behaved moments that I can remember. After the ceremony my friends gathered around to congratulate me. Jennifer, who has never been too keen on waiting in line, bumped her way to the front and said, “Good job.” Everyone around me thought she was telling me I did a good job, but I knew she actually meant that she did a good job. She was so proud of herself, and I was proud of her too.
I responded, “Yes Jennifer, you did an excellent job. I am so proud of you.” She then reached out for my hand as if to tell me, “Hey dummy I get to run around the parking lot with you now.” I had not fully thought out the fact that she would want to run with me in the parking lot after the actual ceremony – dress shoes and all! (Of course to the numerous clinicians reading this, the fact that my sister would want the reinforcer or reward after her extremely good behavior is a no-brainer.) I took her hand and we ran in our formal wear.
Writing this story, I can not help but smile. It is a reminder to me that Jennifer, with the right amount of practice, can accomplish a lot more than others give her credit for. I was ready to give up on Jennifer attending my bar mitzvah, but thankfully my mom had the foresight to start practicing “good bar mitzvah behavior” with Jennifer a year in advance. We were also lucky that we implemented aspects of behavioral therapy.
In the spirit of the You Are Not Alone blog, I implore everyone to not underestimate your loved one on the spectrum. While everyone on the spectrum is different, you never know what they can accomplish with practice – and lots of running around parking lots.