This past weekend I had the opportunity to watch a young man with Autism at the beach. He was probably in his 20’s, maybe even a little older. His family had a spot nearby in the sand and so I observed, as we therapists will do. I took care not to observe with a clinical eye, but with a childlike appreciation; an observation free from assessment and only with a curiosity to see where things would go next. I watched intently as this young man crouched down at the water’s edge with an over-sized seashell that he used as a shovel. He precisely picked up one scoop of sand. He then stood up and smiled to himself as he walk into shin deep water, kicking the bubbles at the end of the waves as they rolled by. With an unbridled excitement, he then flung the sand into the ocean, crouched back down, self-stimming on his fingers and the seashell for a few moments. His body squeezed itself with delight. He then stood back up grinning ear to ear. For what seemed to be at least 20 minutes, this young man moved through his routine of happiness, never failing in his glee with each flick of the scooped sand.
I took a deep breath and marveled at the powerful experience of being at the beach – the waves, the gulls, the heat, the breeze, the various shades of blue and tan, the textures, the intricate contours of a seashell, and the connection that is felt personally and with the earth. I watched my own son, a toddler, have a similarly powerful sensory and lifelong learning experience. This is the place to be free.
I watched the young man’s mother, an older woman with mostly gray hair. She too stood at the water’s edge. She’s his protector and his rock, that was easy to see. But she didn’t speak to him or make many movements, she just gently stood nearby and let him enjoy spending his time the way he chose to. He was free to choose. She stared for a long time out into the ocean the way mothers do. I could see her allowing thoughts to drift in and out of her mind – she was present, but taking a minute to rest – the way mothers do when they are trying to be in the moment so they can commit these kinds of afternoons to memory. His brother, probably close to him in age, was a surfer. He walked by on his way to the blanket and tousled the young man’s hair in affection. It was a loving touch, an acknowledgment that they were there together. The young man’s father, with all white hair, carefully came to meet him at the water’s edge with his hat. There was an exchange and almost a refusal, but the father persisted gently and with respect. The hat went on. This experience was therapeutic on so many levels, and not just for the young man.
I went back and forth watching my own family and watching the new family. Each time I saw the young man smile, I smiled. With a rhythm like the waves, over and over the young man returned to his spot at the water’s edge for another scoop of sand. And each time I saw him toss the sand, I thought to myself, “Me too, my friend. Me too. I’m really happy to be here too.”