It seemed like any other day, nothing too challenging, I hoped—a walk in the park. Well actually, it was a jog in the park, my favorite place to run…woods, roots, rocks, mud, water. It was just enough of a challenge for this aging body. As I launched (actually lurched) forward for my run, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a couple trying to cajole their young child into a nature walk. “What a nice thing to do with a child,” I thought as I rounded the first bend. But apparently this child had a different view on the situation, because within seconds, he was screaming his displeasure at the top of his lungs, while his powerless mother offered all sorts of appeasements before landing on, “Alright then, I guess I am going to take you home and put you to sleep.” Her way of throwing in the towel and expressing perhaps her sense of powerlessness.

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Within less than a quarter mile, I had that Swiss Family Robinson fully assessed and the child thoroughly diagnosed. I was quite proud of myself. “What a masterful clinician,” thought I. Even in spite of the fact that I have largely retired from clinical practice and play therapy, I still had it.
Well, the jog ended; I had made it through yet another humbling reminder of my age but figured, “A little (understatement) joint pain, inflammation and blanket of mosquito bites are a small price to pay for the privilege of making it through another run through the wild.”

As I turned the corner of the park’s field station, who did I see standing before the opening and closing door of the elevator, proudly pushing buttons, but young Robinson, or the howler monkey I had heard upon entering the woods. But he wasn’t howling and instead was fully engaged, if not enthralled, by the mechanism of the elevator apparatus, or perhaps the power he wielded over the beast by pushing the button. His parents were doing their best to patiently indulge him in his fascination while trying, once again, to rein him in. “Two more times, and then you can take one ride in the elevator, and it will be time to go home,” they offered the boy, who paid absolutely no attention to them.

As you might imagine, I couldn’t restrain my inner-clinician, who had already channeled Virginia Axline, and said to the boy, “You really like that elevator,” upon which he took my hand to lead me into the mechanical maw of this beast he had tamed- although that might have been my projection, not his. “Ah, taking the hand of a complete stranger,” now that is diagnostically important, so my unsolicited assessment deepened. I gently released his tender but firm little grip and stepped back as he continued, unabated, his elevator play. I believe that in that moment, mom was embarrassed and quickly apologized for her child, something that in retrospect I believe she was accustomed to doing.

I piped up, “I could tell from his screaming a bit ago that he didn’t want to walk in the woods, but he sure likes playing with the elevator.” Mom and dad were on board with this unfolding in-situ play therapy session and said to me, “You sure seem to know a lot about kids, do you have grandchildren?” Ouch!!!!!

I felt like saying, “Hey, young people, don’t you see this sweat on my body…I have just vanquished the wilderness trail with my blinding speed and god-like endurance” (I probably ran a mile), but decided to restrain myself. We turned our attention back to elevator-boy, who was now jumping with glee and flapping his hands, trying to verbalize his enthusiasm in words, clearly a challenging developmental task for this sweet, sweet little boy, whose only failing that day was his choice to endlessly engage with this predictable machinery rather spend a minute walking in the muddy, bug infested, woody and sensorially-overwhelming uncertainty of the woods his parents so wanted him to enjoy.

My parting words to the young couple was not affirmation of the obvious diagnosis, but something along the lines of, “It’s so wonderful that you encourage his fascination with the elevator….encouraging any fascination in a child is a good thing.”

Perhaps they were saying something equivalent to “Who was that masked man?” as I hobbled away, or at least that’s what I hoped. And while part of me wanted to turn back around and ask if they’d had their child assessed for autism, I didn’t think that level of intrusion was necessary or appropriate. I was pretty sure that I was in the ballpark on my assessment, but I wasn’t there, or being asked, to render a professional opinion. Maybe it was enough that this “elder-seeming” man they met in the park was kind to them and their child.

File under: Musings and Reflections