My youngest son, Sawyer, used to spend far more time relating to his imagination than he did to the world around him. He would run back and forth humming, flapping his hands and thumping on his chest. By the time he was in first grade, attempts to draw him out of his pretend world to join his classmates or do some class work led to explosions and timeouts. At seven, he was given a diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum.
That was when my wife, Jen, learned about the practice called joining. The idea behind it, which she discovered in Barry Neil Kaufman’s book Son-Rise, is brilliant in its simplicity. We wanted Sawyer to be with us. We did not want him to live in this bubble of his own creation. And so, instead of telling him to stop pretending and join us, we started pretending and joined him. The first time Jen joined him, the first time she ran beside him humming and thumping her chest, he stopped running, stopped thumping, stopped humming and, without a single word from us, turned to her and said, “What are you doing?”
“Learning what it’s like to be you.”
We took turns joining him every day, and a week later we got an email from his special education teacher telling us to keep doing whatever we were doing. He’d gone from five timeouts a day to one in a week.
The classroom was the same, the work was the same – all that was different was that we had found a way to say to him in a language he could understand, “You’re not wrong.” Emboldened by our success, we set about becoming more fluent in this language. For the next couple of years, we taught ourselves to join him constantly. This meant that whatever we were doing had to stop whenever we heard him running back and forth and humming. But we could not join him simply to get him to stop running and thumping and humming. We had to join him without any judgment or impatience.
That was the trickiest part. The desire to fix him was great. I had come to believe that there were broken people in need of fixing. Sometimes, I looked like one of those people. I was a 40-year-old unpublished writer working as a waiter. My life reeked of failure. Many days I looked in the mirror and asked, “What is wrong with me?”
The only way to believe that Sawyer wasn’t broken was if no-one was broken – not anyone, anywhere, ever.
I was used to seeing good people and bad people, smart people and stupid people, talented people and untalented people. I had to break that habit. I did this through a trick of perception. If someone was flapping and humming, or insulting you or saying something cruel about a whole group of people, I taught myself to pay attention to the person beneath the behavior, to the one who was scared or confused, who felt unlucky or undeserving or inadequate.
I did this, ostensibly, so that I could be Sawyer’s dad and help him flourish in the world. And by and by he began emerging from his bubble, began talking about wanting friends, began talking about his future. Now, ten years later, at the end of our classes (we home-school him) every day he asks, “Dad, can we hang out today?” Had this been all that had come of joining Sawyer and learning to see a world without broken people, I suppose it would have been enough.
But ten years later, the writer who couldn’t get published, who felt like a failure, now finds himself talking to groups and even crowds of people, telling them, in so many words, “Everything is O.K. even though it looks like everything is not O.K.!” I would never have talked to these people, nor published the essays that inspired these talks if Jen and I had not joined Sawyer.
Yet the moment I really understood the power of joining came long before any of this. I was having an argument with my wife. I consider ours a good relationship, by which I mean it is the relationship against which I measure all my other relationships. But on this evening we were in the thick of a particularly nasty back and forth. It started small, as they all do. We each felt wronged by the other. The more we talked, the more we tried to “clear things up,” the worse it got. We raised our voices though we live in a small house and our boys would hear us. As the argument grew more heated, as Jen’s voice grew louder and sharper, she shifted before my eyes. I wasn’t seeing my best friend and lover anymore; I was seeing an enemy. Her words, it seemed to me from the opposite end of the couch, were daggers aimed squarely at my worthiness. I had to defend myself.
It was just as I was preparing my next attack that I remembered Sawyer and our practice. I took a beat, and even though Jen still looked like an enemy, even though she still sounded like an enemy, and even though I had learned over the years to protect myself against enemies, I asked myself this question: “What if she’s not your enemy? What if she still loves you? Then what are you looking at?”
This is often how I’d practice with Sawyer or myself or strangers on the street. If any of us looked broken, I’d ask, “But what if no-one is broken? Then what are you seeing?” So that’s what I did with Jen. And as I asked this question, she changed again. Now I saw a woman who was as upset as I was, who wanted to be in agreement as badly as I did, who didn’t understand why we couldn’t reach an agreement. In that instant, my war was over. Soon, the argument was over as well. As always, it had just been a misunderstanding. We still loved each other after all.
Joining Sawyer taught me that unconditional love is not some point on the map. It is a path that leads me where I want to go – to the world I want to live in, rather than the one I’m seeing.
Valuable information. Well worth the thanks.
Thank you for reminding us that it’s okay to be different. Much Love
Very touching and poignant! We really are all one
Loved this article. But I think some people really are broken. I’m thinking specifically of some world leaders, such as the dictators of countries like North Korea. Or those who commit genocide. Those people need to be fixed.
Great article here , Good article.
Thank you so much. I needed to hear this very much. It seems so true (what we all want…to be seen/heard, not judged) and so hard.
Deep truth, I love it
Thought proving article & a subject that I often have often believed to be true.
Thanks also to Ellen S for your heart story warming story about dementia. Reminded me of an experience I had a few years back as a PCA in private homes.
A gorgeous social outgoing and religious lady I would visit weekly for two hours while her husband had some respite.
One day after her hubby had left the house the lady turned to me and told me to get out of her house. She turned on me totally, something I hadnt expected. I tried to call my supervisor but couldnt get through. She was becoming more agitated when I wouldnt leave, so with some quick thinking I picked up her favourite book, The Bible. Fortunately I remembered from past visits her favourite Bible verse and just started reading it to her. She transformed from a frightened agitated person to a calm loving one.
For the next 1.5 hours I went between reading this verse and others as I had connected to “her”.
It was a special time for me but more importantly for her. She had a highlight in her day and that was most important.
If we all tried to take a message from this article I think it would be “give of yourself and forget about yourself for a short while”. This is a win win situation!
Thank you for writing this article. I’ve been working with people with autism and developmental disabilities for over 40 years. I’ve NEVER considered anyone I’ve worked with as broken. Every human being has unique gifts to offer to the world…and at this point in time, the world needs ALL of our gifts.
Beautiful article! Beautiful message. So hard not to judge, I will remember ‘Joining Sawyer’.
And thank you, Ellen for sharing your experience as well. That was so sweet.
Thank You for reminding us. Awesome article!!
As a nurse, I found joining works with Alzheimer’s folks, too. For 9 years K had 24 hour help in her home. As a very sociable person, she was starved for more companionship than her caregivers could provide. Her friends didn’t know how to relate to her at the latter stage of the disease. She was moved to a house where she had 5 peers with Alzheimer’s, and had a very sweet final two years. She knew my voice and face well after so many years with her. One day I visited, and she was very busy in a trance, moving papers around and around on a table. She could not hear my greeting. She could not feel my touch. I knew if I could get eye contact, we could connect.
So I joined her. I began pushing the papers around and around on the table. Her motion stopped briefly, then resumed. Her eyes were intent on the papers. She had allowed me to join her at that point. I knew I had to enhance the experience for her to get her to join me. I looked around and saw two throw pillows. I brought them to the table. I put some papers under and on top of one pillow, and then put the second pillow on top of all that. I began moving that stack around, sometimes pulling papers out and putting them back under the pillows. She stopped, grinned, and then finally looked at me. We connected. She held my hands and we walked together, away from the table and the trance, into our shared heart space.
As many wonderful meaningful articles tend to be this one is also very timely. After years in & around mental health & suicide prevention there were some disturbing statistics that emerged today around returned soldiers who have recently taken their lives with a particular emphasis on how our Anzac Day commemorations tend to exacerbate the mental anguish of many of these returned service people…the organisation working on behalf of these at risk people is actually called Broken Heroes . I am going to attempt to join them as a volunteer & will certainly use the essence of this article in my discussions. Thank you.
“Everything is O.K. even though it looks like everything is not O.K.!”
Exactly. I have had a number of “mystical experiences” in my life time
and one of them left me with that message, but more than just a message–
I “knew” or “realized” the truth of it, and it lasted a while, slowly
fading (mainly as I drove home from work!). There was more to that particular
mystical experience that I would be happy to share with you, as well as the
others (including one that made this one seem like a sort of sequel).
So beautiful, so touching, so true. I believe we’re all here to learn exactly that. Unconditional love, acceptance and no more judging.. evolving together.. wow, thank you ❤️
Love this, thank you for the best kind of reminding!