What does the future hold for a child who has autism? Susan Nisinzweig’s son, Eytan, age 25, is proof that young adults with autism can live meaningful, productive and joyful lives. Despite his autism and limited social and language skills, Eytan has a steady paying job doing something he loves: leading sing-alongs at local preschools, churches and senior centers.
Nisinzweig shares details about her son’s journey below, along with her best tips for guiding a child with autism toward a fulfilling adulthood.
Focus on the happiness factor. Eytan has always been musical, says Nisinzweig, singing and playing the piano by ear at a very young age. She didn’t consider it a potential career path until attending a workshop at his high school about identifying vocational opportunities. “The seminar leader asked, ‘What puts the biggest smile on your child’s face?’” recalls Nisinzweig. She wrote down that he was happiest when singing and playing the piano for family and friends, and also that he loves to draw. “It opened my eyes to new paths for him,” says Nisinzweig. “When kids are young, you spend so much time advocating for them, searching for solutions, fighting to get them the right services in the right settings, and pushing them forward—which is all very important. It’s all about ‘What can this child accomplish?’, ‘What’s his potential?’ and ‘How much can he learn?’, but this exercise got me thinking more about what brings Eytan joy. That will be different for every child,” she adds. One may like animals, another could be into trains or organizing things. “Once you pay attention to what your child loves doing, you will be able to envision a meaningful future.”
Picture the possibilities. After you pinpoint your child’s favorite pastimes, think about how they might translate into a job. Performing at preschools for a young audience seemed the perfect fit for Eytan, who idolized and patterned himself after Raffi and other famous children’s singers. Nisinzweig’s husband approached a local nursery school teacher that he knew from the neighborhood about the prospect of Eytan entertaining her class, a mix of typically-developing and kids with special needs. She loved the idea, and got the ball rolling in her public school. That was about 5 years ago. Eytan often draws pictures to go along with the songs and hangs them on his keyboard, which promotes Eytan’s love of drawing. To further this love, Nisinzweig recently launched a website called EytanArt.com, which sells t-shirts featuring Eytan’s designs and Nisinzweig’s messages promoting tolerance and providing an opportunity to fundraise for special needs causes. One drawing of a peacock and a flamingo says, “Different is Beautiful.”
Pave the way for success. Before Eytan began his music gig at the preschool, Nisinzweig prepared him for the demands. “We needed to make sure that he would behave appropriately in the classroom, that he could set up his instruments, speak loudly and clearly enough for kids to hear and understand him, follow a song list, and tolerate the unexpected” (like equipment failures or special requests). She worked closely with his teachers and therapists to reinforce those behaviors every day in school and they invited him to bring his keyboard in and sing at class parties for practice. Nisinzweig also lined up an aide to drive and accompany Eytan to his preschool performances. When he made his big debut, he was an instant hit with the nursery school crowd. “The kids love him,” says Nisinzweig. They don’t seem to notice the signs of autism—the fact that he sometimes seems very unemotional and other times giggles a lot, or that he might stop in the middle of a song to blurt out a line from Sesame Street. They simply love him for who he is. Eytan has grown so popular that he now leads sing-alongs three mornings a week for 10 classes in five different schools. In addition, he spends one morning a week playing show tunes and classical music at a nursing home. In the afternoons, Eytan attends a community program where he learns life skills and for the last 3 years, he’s been taking twice-weekly piano lessons with a wonderful music teacher/therapist who continues to push him to grow as a pianist. Eytan has also been hired by a local church to play at periodic luncheons for seniors, and once a month for the children in their preschool program. On a few occasions, Eytan has performed at children’s birthday parties where he gets to show off his other hidden talent of making balloon animals, but Nisinzweig is hesitant to overload him. “I want him to be happy and enjoy doing these things and not get overwhelmed.”