Mafe Maria: Personal stories by autism parent mentor, Maria Stultz

Unfolding wings of independence

In five months, ten-year-old Joaquin built up the strength to unfold his wings and joyfully fly out of his safe baby nest all the way to school. Yes! School!. It took several stretching steps and leaps he willingly went for—some small, some rather large. This is how it happened.

March 15

Seven days ago my breakfast conversation with Joaquin revealed something crucially important.

Since it’s clear that now he can take a certain level of instruction in a group and has greater tolerance for structured learning time (as opposed to self-directed), I was telling him about upcoming day camps in subjects he may be interested in. Curious, he asked if I would be present wherever the camp was during the time he participated. I said no. I can wait out the door for him for 1-hour activities, but three hours? I’d rather not. And from his response and the conversation that followed I learned that his baby separation anxiety is still active and currently getting in the way of his about-to-explode social expansion. I (or papa) must be inside the same building as he is or he won’t allow himself to focus nor enjoy any activity. And this!—he said—will NEVER change!

So my “Eye of Mordor” immediately turned straight to this sweet spot and started sparking ideas to slowly, subtly, happily, help him begin to perceive himself safe away from me. And in the following days we took several variations of “step 1”: Me walking on the track above the basketball court where he trains, as opposed to staying in it with him. Last night he told me that this step had been greatly important; he felt nervous at first but he was okay now. And he asked me what step 2 could be?… What would be the 3rd?… And 4th?… And 5th?… And we began to imagine and dream of the world of wonder that awaits for him at each of those steps of independence (eventually leading to a happy school). It was cuddly and lovely, and we were laughing and picturing all these images of a fun, happy, and very close future. Then he told me I’m not ready for step 2 yet. I think we need to take 15 or more step ones before I’m ready. That’s okay, I said.

But this morning a perfect opportunity presented itself. I told Joaquin that today, while he was in his art class, I’d love to walk to the store across the parking lot to shop for a few things I need. This is a scenario to which he has said never up to seven days ago, but to my surprise he immediately responded that’s okay. So we created a plan: I promised that I’d be back five minutes before the end of his class, and he asked for ten instead. We discussed what he should do in the unlikely event that I wasn’t there 10 minutes past his class.

This is the moment I left the building.

About to cross the building doors and go outside

I realize most parents have gone through this moment years earlier than me and may be wondering what took us so long. I realize there may even be a few secret judgments from others for not having forced this moment earlier in time. I’ll just say it took this long for it to be successful and experienced with empowerment.

Steps 3, 4, 5,… here we come!

April 11

Waiting and reading in the carThis week Joaquin and I have been learning about cells: DNA on day 1, cellular war against viruses on day 2, and today we learned about cellular responses to allergens like pollen. Joaquin may be a child of light but he refuses to accept the possibility I’ve suggested that a conversation with his cells could help them stop releasing copious amounts of histamine like they have been doing the last days of spring.

Here I am, still not allowed to go somewhere else while he takes his art class, re-reading Bruce Lipton’s “The Biology of Belief”, one of the first things I read and ate up with gusto when I began our Son-Rise program. All this talk about cells has made me want to remember what I learned back then about the power that lies outside the cell membrane, or as Bruce found out: The Magical mem-Brain. Maybe I can stop my own seasonal allergy due for a visit in a few weeks.

April 18 • Step 3

Bollo announces this week that he wants to do a basketball camp this summer knowing that I won’t be present. All day!, he says. He wants to work on his basketball skills so much he’s ready to take the scary step. So today, in preparation for that, I encourage once again the experience of letting me come home while he takes his art class. He smiles…

—”Alright, but instead: How about if you take a walk around?”

Landscape around his art studio
Taking the walk that was unthinkable and unbearable a few weeks ago

April 25

Big day for this little one visiting and exploring Otto Specht School. Tomorrow should be even bigger…

Joaquin sleeping
Exhausted Joaquin, taking a nap after spending a half-day visiting Otto Specht School in New York

April 26 • Step 4

My Waldorf boy enjoying his very first full day of school (as a visitor) exploring this new “place for miracles” (Son-Rise reference) life has put in our path. After 1.5 days here, he is ready to move to New York state, leave his dad in Salt Lake City, and start coming here every day. He’s NEVER accepted any kind of idea about school, but he’s already seen and told me how good this would be for him.

Playing in the woods at OSSPlaying in the woods at OSS
Jumping rope at Games classCelebrating a fun day at OSS

April 30

Lately I like to ask Joaquin for the highlight of his day with this bedtime question:

—”If all your memories of the day went away while you sleep and you could only keep one with you, what would it be?”

These were his answers during our five-day trip visiting Otto Specht School:

Wed: Singing class; “Land of the silver birch, home of the beaver…”
Thu: Learning about trees while walking among them in forestry class.
Fri: Carving a hole with the drill press with goggles and ear muffers in Mr. Kelly’s woodshop.
Sat: Saying goodbye to Susan [pout].
Sun: The NBA store!!!

Dear Otto Specht School, you gave Joaquin the best possible experience he could have ever had going to school for the first time. We’re eternally grateful to all the teachers and students who welcomed us, and especially to Jeanette Rodriguez, Bill Kelly, Chela Crane, and mama bear/angel/force of nature Susan Levin and her husband Sean.

Marveling at the New York Public Library
New York, meet Joaquin!

May 1 • Step 5

Waiting at homeAnd so it happened. This morning I told Joaquin that today I’d like to come home while he took his Track and Field training, and he had no objections!

We discussed again what he should and shouldn’t do in case I didn’t show up. I took him to the activity and mentally checked my possibilities: I could quickly get a certain thing I need to buy at the mall, but what if I crashed and couldn’t get to Joaquin on time?… Maybe I should stay in the parking lot secretly so I’d know for sure I’d be there… But I realized: Maybe I should just go home. I should really leave him and trust that he’ll be safe. Joaquin took the scary step and so should I.

So I came home and set my alarm with extra time just in case, sat on my mediation cushion, and thanked God for today’s miracle in these short three months of amazing miracles.

May 16 • Step 6

Guess who’s excited, able, ready, and finally signed up for basketball camps for the first time this summer?

Most of you got to trust and share your kids away so many years ago, but we had to invest all those years in slowly, patiently, intentionally nurturing an environment and conditions for so many crucial foundational abilities to develop before this could be a possibility.

I feel profoundly grateful and blessed that all we’ve done has been validated and compensated with victories like this as I know that there are many others who’ve loved, nurtured, and invested as much or more than we have, and for whom this kind of development is still a dream.

In this road of so many and yet so few we keep dreaming, we keep walking and aiming, and waiting, and climbing, and resting, and hoping striving to trust, and thanking with so much joy for the tiniest little miracles of every day.

Jun 18–21
Barry Hecker Basketball Camp (4 days, 2 hours per day)

Ex-NBA Coach Hecker imparting camp rules and you gotta pay attention and listen! and no slacking here! and I’m going to be tough with you guys!, and I’m nervously picking my fingers, but Kiki signed up for this and I’m sure he’s loving every single second and spit of it.

Friends, wish him luck and a nurturing experience, whatever it turns out to be. He’s in that gigantic group of basketball lovers and I’m so proud of him.

kids listening to Coach Hcloseup of kids listening to Coach H

July 9–13
Lego STEM Challenge Camp (5 days, 3 hours per day)

Joaquin listens to his instructor Andrew (who has become one of his favorite teachers of all time), builds while learning engineering concepts, takes photos of his constructions, and has lunch away from home. Wow!

Selfie with STEM build at lego camp

July 23
Bubbles Art Camp (1 day, 4 hours)

Happy getting ready for campBubbles drawing from camp

July 30–August 2
Matt Harpring Basketball Camp (4 days, 4 hours per day)

Find Joaquin :)

large group of kids wearing the same shirt at basketball campJoaquin, beaming joyfully posing next to ex-NBA player, Matt

August 8–9
Big Messy Art Camp (2 days, 4 hours per day)

August 13–14
Galaxy Art Camp (2 days, 4 hours per day)

August 15–16
Awesome Abstract Art Camp (2 days, 4 hours per day)

August 13

So there’s an exciting development currently baking at home, and as I discuss my fears about certain things that will happen if I give my permission I have a bit of an emotional rant directed at Joaquin. I raise my voice, gesture with my hands, and say things like You have to understand; we’ve never done this!, This is very new to me!, and I want to make sure that you’re safe!.

It’s the kind of tone that has turned him off in the past when his tolerance for low-vibrating emotion was lower, so I fully expect some pout or teary eyes. Instead, he listens attentively and when I finish goes to his grapes. A few minutes later he comes near me, and as he cleans his dish in the sink he tells me—like an old man:

“I understand. This is very new…”

I feel understood and validated. He turns to the dishwasher to put the dirty plate in, and I see a slight smile in his face. He adds:

“… But I’m unfolding my wings, so you need to let me. I want my freedom.”

Oh God. This kid. I adore him. Please take good care of my guillemot as he launches in all his first flights.

August 28 • Step 7
Joaquin goes to school and loves it!

So this started three weeks ago (but really it was more like eight years ago in a playroom, with Team Joaquin).

Noticing that summer camps were about to end and realizing how happy he had been learning new things for hours out of the house, he started to suffer boredom. Terrible unbearable boredom! But unlike other boring episodes in the past, this time he had new information: He had already gone to Otto Specht and realized that school could be nice; he wasn’t afraid any more of being some place without his parents in the building or nearby; he had tried so many day camps this summer, and he had loved the experience.

So I chanted I think you need a school now, Joaquin and offered him to try that “unschooling school” I had invited him to try at different times in the past. All those times the answer had been no no never no!. This time it was maybe with a smile and a spark in his eyes. He agreed to schedule a private tour. He went, he saw, he loved. One week later he was enrolled for a month trial.

Yesterday was his first official day of school. He was ready and excited, and yet look at his little face:

Before his 1st day of schoolBefore his 1st day of schoolBefore his 1st day of school

Although he never admitted it, he was probably a little nervous. I was nervous too!

I took him to school, kissed him goodbye, and couldn’t hold the tears when once out of the building I said goodbye to one of the staff members with the words that came out in such an emotional moment:

“Take care of him”

I bawled in the car.

A week ago I had gone through my terrified moment. Three days ago I went through my triumphant moment. Yesterday, upon leaving him, I was having my Fly, little bird moment.

Now look at the pics from this morning:

Before his 2nd day of schoolBefore his 2nd day of schoolBefore his 2nd day of school

Only two days and he loves it. Wants to go there forever. Five days a week! (we had talked about the possibility of three or four days, if full-time was too much). Loves it way better than homeschooling—ungrateful little bollo! [wink].

For chores he got assigned to the Kitchen Team along with L, a sweet teenage girl I met on the first day. She taught him what to do and they talked about her pet snake from last year. At School Meeting he voted no for changes to the media room. He’s already signed up for three activities this week—two of them out of campus (help me God!). Now I eat lunch alone, but he already found an adult lunch buddy at school.

I expect things to get bumpy and emotional as interaction with kids evolves and the more sophisticated social agenda of “living” in this community unfolds, but so far he’s loving it. He took his time growing strong roots; growing also an interest. Now he’s stretching high and fast like in the bamboo story. Victory!

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  1. On , Juliana Ortiz wrote:

    Mafe que linda historia, que dedicación, cuantos aprendizajes, cuanta sabiduría… mil gracias por compartir. Inspiras!!!!
    Un abrazo fuerte por tus logros y por tus derrotas que te han dado un impulso para sacar más fuerza, para luchar, para creer, para escuchar!!!

  2. On , Maria wrote:

    Juliana, gracias por leer y observar nuestra historia con tanta consciencia y apreciacion. Tu presencia y la de muchos otros, estoy segura, es parte del misterioso —y a veces aparentemente “magico”— medio que nutre a este niño en su crecimiento. Un abrazo grande para ti!