Early in my first months of teaching my students with Autism, I discovered that hula hoops held a special power. One day at the end of class, we’d been working hard on structured activities with variable success: lots of cajoling of individual students, with them alternately joining and wandering away from our activities. Exhausted, I needed a break, so I passed out hula hoops. Suddenly they were all there! I put on music and let them go. Not trying to lead, I didn’t talk. I joined them, and we all did hula hoops for the span of a long musical selection — quiet and calming — with everyone doing their own thing.
So hula hoops became a frequent ending activity. No matter how the class had gone, everyone would take a hula hoop — to carry or twirl or roll or step through or run with or hula with. I always take one too, and I’ve almost recovered some of the hula hooping skills I had in my youth! Some students try out what I’m doing, sometimes I use the concept we’ve been working on in class, but I always quit talking. Which is probably a relief for my non-verbal learners!
And then last week, there came a hula hoop moment with 8-year-old Hank that was pure magic! Hank started two years ago with 0% participation, lying on the floor and sobbing. He’s gradually begun to join us, and his skills are growing, but he’s still unpredictable. Sometimes it helps for him to wear silencing headphones — when he’s suddenly overwhelmed by sound. Often as not, on a bad day, he retreats to a tiny dark corner of my space with his headphones on and won’t come out til it’s time to leave.
Last week he stayed with our activities pretty well throughout the class, and at the end, I passed out hula hoops. In the midst of our parallel play, I noticed Hank just a foot away from me, and he seemed to be watching. Much as we work on eye tracking activities in class, eye contact with or among my Autistic students is almost non-existent. But Hank seemed to be focused. And he seemed to be doing what I was doing.
Moving slowly, I continued moving, and he stayed with me. I eased off, and he kept moving. I stayed with him. Our space grew very small, just he and I moving together in a single sphere, trading leadership. As we continued, I’m sure there were moments when our eyes met. There was a magnetic current of interaction that ran between us, such that Marnie, one of his instructional aids, stopped and just watched. When the music finally ended and I thanked Hank for dancing with me as we put away our hula hoops, my eyes met Marnie’s, both of us with the wide eyes of amazement.
And smiles of hope.