When I was ready to finish my graduate degree and begin to branch out into professional practice, I knew Northern Colorado was where I wanted to be. What I didn't plan on was a part-time gig that would turn into a life-changing experience.
I took a position as a substitute for the St. Vrain Valley School District, but since I didn't have a teaching degree, I was limited to working with Kindergarten and Special Ed classrooms. My very first job was to stand in for a week in the autism classroom at one of the elementary schools.
The psychology and counseling training I had received had included very little in the way of understanding people on the Autism Spectrum. As I began to interact with the students and attempt to be of help in the classroom, it was clear that this assignment would be characterized by the unexpected.
But probably most surprising was the tremendous enjoyment that awaited in building relationships with these special students.
If you've had the privilege of getting to know someone with autism, you know what I'm talking about. Beyond the unique challenges and vastly diverse approaches they require, you'll find the most open, truthful, joyful people you could ever hope to meet.
That week-long subbing gig turned into a full-time spot in that classroom, then into a several-year stint working with students on the spectrum in a variety of venues. Over this time I've learned so much about people with special needs, as well as a lot about myself, and about what it means to be human.
One student in particular gave me a lesson that was so useful, I've made it a part of my daily life, and even used it to help clients in counseling.
He is non-verbal and uses an electronic device to communicate. At least, it fills in the specific words he needs when necessary. Anyone who knows him knows that his love of life and appreciation of the simple pleasures in it is always clear. One of his favorite pleasures is corn chips.
You've never seen anyone enjoy anything as purely and authentically as this guy loves his chips. He has them every day (in responsible amounts). He picks them up, one by one, turning each slowly in his fingers and observing it as though they have some distinct visual quality unique to each one. He then places the chip in his mouth, closing his eyes as he unabashedly relishes crunching it up slowly, savoringly, taking his time before finishing it and repeating the process with the next chip.
Many times I've watched this ritual and been envious of the pure joy he experiences, that never seems to lose its potency. When have I ever enjoyed anything as much? I've often wondered.
Then, I was sitting at a table in a Mexican restaurant one day, and the waiter dropped off the obligatory chips and salsa. I looked at them. I thought, I'm gonna give this a try.
Picking up the first chip, I turned it over in my fingers just like my student taught me, inspecting the texture, noticing the color, letting my gaze travel along the shape and the curve. As I ate it, I took stock of all the micro sensations involved: every satisfying crack and break, the coarseness of the salt, the subtle hints of corn flavor hiding in the savory oil.
Honestly, corn chips are amazing. Yeah, it's just a deep-fried tortilla segment that Americans pound down by the billions daily. It's such a common, small thing that we allow our brains to almost skip the experience entirely, even when we think we're enjoying them.
As I savored and admired my friend's method of enjoying a corn chip, I wondered how many other glorious experiences I am just zooming right by, dismissing and taking for granted, all because I'm tied to a focus that keeps me busy, dissatisfied, and discontent. This wonderful lesson in grounding, returning to the moment, and cultivating an appreciation for how wonderful life is came from someone too many of us would think could never offer such insight.
I've told this story to clients struggling with anxiety, shame, or even sleeplessness as a framework for building mindfulness, a tool to help people take command of their thought processes and release the cloying stresses that come to define our daily experience. It doesn't have to be chips or even food--you can stop and experience anything with intentionality. Pay attention to all the tiny parts of feeling the breeze, or the comfort of your bed, of listening to your favorite song.
Our lives are so loud, so big, and so busy that sometimes it's just what we need to shrink down and enjoy the tiny worlds of wonder that we have gotten so used to not noticing.
My student may never know how well he's taught me this, or how much I appreciate it. Maybe that will change. But for now, I'm so glad he hasn't lost an ounce of enjoyment as he savors life, one chip at a time.
Mike Ensley is a Counselor in Loveland. He's nationally board-certified, and also has several years of experience working in autism education.