By Ocean Robbins
My wife Michele and I are parents of adorable, love-filled 10-year-old identical-twin boys named River and Bodhi. River and Bodhi were born nine weeks prematurely and have always struggled with major developmental delays. We held them in skin-to-skin contact (a premature-infant treatment protocol known as “kangaroo care”) for much of their first year and have since pursued many approaches, including nutritional, medical and biomedical, neurological, social/environmental, and spiritual/shamanic, as well as making extensive use of occupational therapy, speech therapy and developmental educational therapies. Recently, River and Bodhi have been diagnosed with autism.
Rates of autism have increased twentyfold in the last generation, and as CBS affiliate DFW reported, autism now impacts one in 88 children in the United States. While there are numerous theories as to the reason for this dramatic increase, it has now reached a point where most of us have some friend or family member who is affected.
The conventional belief is that autism is a life sentence and that autistic children are never going to be able to function in the “real world” without massive assistance. And, indeed, our twins do have some major struggles. At age 10, neither of our boys is fully potty trained or able to attend school. Very recently, a sweet and well-intentioned pediatric neurologist told us, “There’s really nothing that can be done.” But we have also recently discovered an extraordinary program called Son-Rise that turns this conventional life-sentence ideology on its head. The Son-Rise program builds on many approaches we have implemented intuitively already, but it also takes those building blocks to another level.
There is now, somewhat shockingly, a sense of hope and joy arising in me. For 10 years I had felt as if my parenting journey was about trying to make the best of a tragedy. Now I feel I am actively participating in a miracle. For 10 years I felt much of what I was doing as a father was necessary but, at times, also a distraction from my life’s work as a transformational social-change leader. Now I feel it is central to my life’s work. I don’t know what my children will ever be or do or how far the miracle will stretch. But it is already changing my life.
The Son-Rise Program
Son-Rise was developed in the 1970s by Barry and Samahria Kaufman after their son Raun was diagnosed with severe autism and a functional IQ under 30. Numerous experts told them he would never speak and they should institutionalize him for life, but they developed a courageous, unique and wildly effective way of working with him. Within three years, Raun fully recovered and went on to become a brilliant, articulate and socially gregarious leader and today is CEO of their Autism Treatment Center of America. The Son-Rise program has been the subject of numerous books and films, including the global best-seller Son-Rise: The Miracle Continues and the NBC Documentary A Miracle of Love.
We are grateful to be learning so much from this program, and it is changing not only how we see our children but how we see our world and ourselves.
Many parents of autistic children experience their parenting journey as a bitter one filled with disappointments and loss. One thing that makes the Son-Rise program so unique is the support it provides for parents and caregivers to experience authentic joy and real fulfillment in their relationships with their children. This is because of the tremendous curriculum the Son-Rise program provides, emphasizing the inner life and growth of the parents and caretakers involved.
We are learning that everything an autistic child does they do for a reason. When they retreat into familiar or exclusive behaviors, it is often to recalibrate and feel a sense of safety in themselves. Instead of fearing or resisting these behaviors, we are learning to trust, delight in and join our children, mirroring what we see, until they notice and make contact, often with great joy that they are being seen and accepted. They show us the doorway into their world, and then, as we befriend them in it, we can show them the doorway out, into our world. There are numerous fun ways of building eye contact, flexibility and relational capacity as autistic children grow in their ability to connect.
Right now, River is passionate about Barbie dolls. He loves to play with them, to change their clothes over and over again and, sometimes, to chew on their feet. One day recently, River was chewing on a Barbie’s foot, staring off into space. He had been doing this for about 5 minutes, seemingly oblivious to the world around him. I was tempted, as might have been my pattern, to try to take the Barbie out of River’s mouth or to distract him from his munching by pulling him into a story or activity. But, instead, I picked up another Barbie, sat across the room from River in a position very similar to his and began to chew on her foot just as he was doing.
I went from seeing River’s behavior as pathological to seeing it as adorable and wanting to join him. River came out of his chewing trance enough to look over at me and grin. His smile seemed to be saying, “Congratulations! After years of my trying to tell you, you finally figured out how much fun this is.” As River continued his chewing his eyes went back and forth between staring off into space and looking at me with a big smile. Then, after a minute or so, he gestured to me that I could come, if I wanted, to chew on the other foot of the very Barbie he was holding. He did so with an inviting smile, so now I found myself 3 inches from River’s face, staring into his beaming eyes as we each chewed on opposite feet of the same Barbie.
When River and Bodhi were babies I never got to have the experience of eye contact with them. In fact, up until recently, I had never really had that privilege. But now, with a Barbie to enjoy chewing on together, River and I were beaming into one another’s eyes with joy. It was a moment I think I will treasure forever.
Bodhi, too, is having eye contact breakthroughs. In fact, since we started to implement the Son-Rise program a couple of months ago, we have seen a sixfold increase in eye contact from both our children. Considering that lack of eye contact is one of the core features of Autism, this represents an enormous change.
With the full and active support of my dad, John; my mom, Deo, my wife, Michele, and I are getting our Son-Rise program rolling. We’re holding a series of training sessions in the Santa Cruz, Calif., area to share what we’re learning in this work — to transmit the fire that is illumining our lives and bringing healing to our children — and we are enrolling new partners.
A team of leaders and volunteers implements each Son-Rise program, which is relationship-based, fun and transformative for both the children and the program team. Because autistic children are extraordinarily sensitive to the emotions and thoughts of those around them, the Son-Rise program offers support to the team in becoming more clear, present and joyful, ready and able to make rewarding contact with the children we serve and play with. Everyone who joins us finds — as we have — that River and Bodhi’s joyous spirits give sweet and loving feedback and that, in fact, this program isn’t just for the children. It is a blessing to all who participate. Please contact us if you would like more information on the extensive training and support we offer volunteers, as well as live/work-trade opportunities on our land.
We also welcome financial donations to support the many costs associated with our program. The simplest way to give is to make a PayPal gift to Michele (at) yesworld.org. Tax-deductible options exist for larger gifts. Please contact us if you want more information on our program’s logistics and the incredible difference it could make.