Yesterday Richard, Emma, Nic and I went to a post wedding party for Joe, Emma’s therapist and Joe’s wife, Angelica. It is always interesting going to a function together as we never know how Emma will behave. Will she have a meltdown? Will she insist on leaving right away? Will she be so utterly unmanageable that we spend the entire party racing around after her? When it is a dressy affair, one with speeches and food, which she will have no interest in, it becomes all the more worrisome. We knew we had a better chance things would go well by the very fact that this was a party for Joe and Emma adores Joe.
Still, we did our best to prepare her before we left.
“We are going to get dressed up, then take a taxi and see Joe!” We told her.
“See Joe!” Emma repeated, nodding her head and twirling in place.
“That’s right Joe and Angelica,” I said.
“It’s a birthday party,” Emma concluded.
“No. It’s Joe and Angelica’s party celebrating their marriage,” I said, not sure how else to describe a post wedding brunch.
“A wedding-birthday party,” Emma said.
“Well, sort of. But it’s to celebrate their getting married,” I explained.
“Okay,” Emma said.
“There’s going to be food there and lots of people…” I said.
“And Joe and Angelica!” Emma interrupted me.
“That’s right. Joe and Angelica will be there.”
“Angelica! Angelica!” Emma sang as she twirled in place.
“And there will be a few speeches and we will see a video and then we will come home and change,” I continued.
“Go to Chelsea gym bowling,” Emma said.
“Yeah. Okay. We can go bowling at Chelsea Piers afterward,” I said.
“Go with Mommy and Nickey and Daddy,” Emma said.
“Exactly,” I said.
“Okay! Emma put on a party dress,” Emma said.
“Yes,” I said.
The party was lovely and Emma was terrific, on her best behavior. Joe’s niece was there, an adorable two-year old in a party dress similar to Emma’s. They ran around together, though in truth it was Victoria’s exuberant friendliness, undeterred by Emma’s less than attentive response to her, which kept their interactions going. If Emma sat down, Victoria sat down next to her. When Emma took her shoes off, off came Victoria’s shoes. When Emma ran around the room waving her arms, Victoria followed waving her arms as well. It reminded me of how neuro-typical children behave. They follow the older child and often mimic them. Emma never did that.
People ate and chatted with one another. Both Nic and Emma ran around with the two other children there. Then Joe stood up to give his speech. Emma sat down and remained quiet as he spoke. It was a heart felt speech, incredibly moving and left many of us in tears.
When it was my turn to give a speech, I pulled out my notes. I had decided, when considering what to say, that perhaps I would use at least some of my time explaining exactly what it is Joe does. I think it’s easy for people who know nothing about autism to assume he is a glorified babysitter. Someone who hangs out with Emma and takes her to the park. This could not be farther from the truth.
When Richard and I went to Bethesda to train in the DIR/floortime method with Stanley Greenspan, who invented it and his son Jake, we were exhausted before the day had ended. Attempting to engage and evoke language from an essentially non-verbal child who is uninterested in any form of interaction is like nothing I have ever done. It is physically and emotionally exhausting. It requires a creativity, quick-thinking, concentration, focus and patience most people simply do not have. Richard and I have met hundreds of therapists over the years, some have it and many more who do not. The idea that anyone can effectively work with autistic children is just not true.
Joe is the ninja master, the autism whisperer. He has a talent for it, an intuitive sense, which I have had the pleasure of observing many, many times. Joe is not just a gifted floortime therapist, he is also a well trained one. It is a formidable pairing.
And yet, what I have witnessed time and time again is how Joe and others like him are undermined, their work is seen as little more than babysitting, their profession consistently undervalued. Devoting ones life to helping children with special needs is a noble calling. Joe is royalty among the noble.
It was with these sentiments that I rose to give my speech. I cannot say I got through it flawlessly because I did not. I stumbled and I had to refer to my notes, I choked up several times and at one point had to stop speaking, as I was completely overwhelmed with emotion. But mostly I wanted others to understand the importance of what Joe does everyday. Joe has transformed Emma’s life in untold ways. His commitment to her, his dedication to her has formed who she is and who she will become.
One story I forgot to mention yesterday was when we were having a hearing with the Board of Education. Joe had testified as to what he does with Emma. Richard and I had also testified regarding Joe’s contribution. During the final cross-examination by our attorney of the attorney for the Board of Education regarding some of her arguments, she looked up from her notes and said, “Well I don’t know. I’m not a Joe Kennedy.”
When I am with Emma during one of her legendary meltdowns I am fortunate if I have a momentary reprieve when I am able to ask myself – what would Joe say or do in this situation? The times when I am able to emulate Joe are the times I know I’ve done the right thing.