Can children on the autism spectrum get better? What does it even mean to "get better"? Live normal lives? Be happier? Relate to people and engage in social interactions?
Autism and Asperger's specialist Rob Bernstein says 'yes'—to all of the above.
In his office in Dobbs Ferry, Bernstein—a self-titled 'Educational Therapist,' with a degree in special education—works one-on-one with children and young adults with developmental disabilities.
Often he greets clients with interesting rocks from his extensive collection of quartz and geodes or shows them science experiments, trying to gauge their reactions.
"I have to understand the mind of a child with Asperger's or autism," he explained. "I need to find the gap in the child's development and fill it. That's where significant change happens."
According to Bernstein, you can't tell a child with Asperger's to do something because it's normal and because you say so—in fact the autistic child's mind can sometimes be more rational than that of someone with normal social skills—Why do we make inane small talk? Is telling a white lie to protect someone's feelings acting with integrity?
Instead, Bernstein insists that teaching children with Asperger's and autism social norms must be done in context—working a job or engaging in a recreational activity.
Next week Bernstein will host a series of table tennis workshops for children and teens with Asperger's Syndrome at the in Pleasantville. From 12 to 1:30 p.m., this Monday through Thursday, Bernstein invites kids of all ages with Asperger's or other disabilities to come play tennis and hopefully navigate some crucial social interactions along the way.
"Ping Pong [the less PC term for table tennis] provides the perfect opportunity for me to help these kids deal with social interactions," said Bernstein, an avid table tennis player and close friend of NY Times crossword maven Will Shortz, who owns the center. "They have to be able to say 'nice shot,' when an opponent gets a point, ask someone new to play—even just learn how to play by the rules."
Bernstein described one client who was terrified of speaking to people he didn't know because he thought they would think he was weird for broaching conversation with a stranger.
"I got the kid a job in a local donut shop because that way he would have to speak to people he didn't know—even if just to say, 'Thank you; have a nice day,'" Bernstein recalled. Bernstein also spoke to the manager, asking him to reinforce that the young worker was obliged to wish every customer a nice day.
"One day—after his two-hour shift—we sat in the donut shop together," Bernstein said. At the table next to them was an older woman—a stranger—with whom Bernstein struck up a conversation. A few moments later, Bernstein's client commented that he thought the woman (Lily) must have thought he was weird for speaking to her when he didn't know her.
So Bernstein asked.
"She was perfect," Bernstein said, his eyes lighting up from the memory. "She was plump and had the most inviting grandmotherly eyes. She turned to my client and said, 'No, I didn't think it was weird at all. I thought it was normal.'"
Bernstein said the woman's use of the word 'normal' was "the greatest thing in the world. I knew from then on that this teenager would never be the same."
In working with kids and young adults with Autism and Asperger's, Bernetein doesn't expect to—even hope—exorcise all their quirkiness or innate talent. Instead, he strives to improve their self esteem and change the belief that they are different and therefore less than mainstream kids.
He hopes they will be able to sit with other kids in the lunch room, go off to college and establish careers—not just get jobs—when they are adults.
Even if he has only four kids show up for table tennis next week, Bernstein wishes to effect fundamental changes in their lives.
"I feel I can make a significant change in just four sessions," Bernstein said. "There is a key to unlocking all these kids' brains and the way they think. And once you find that key, you can change the course of their lives forever."
Table Tennis Therapy will be held Monday through Thursday, beginning on August 8 at the in Pleasantville. Admission fee is $100 for all four sessions. Call or email Rob Bernstein for more information at (914) 330-3393 or email@example.com.