This summer I have read two memoirs written by mothers of children with autism, which I always find interesting as I compare notes. Both of these books discussed the concept of “windows of opportunity,” the critical stages of brain development, and the race to have their children master skills by certain ages. This windows theory from the 1970’s has haunted parents of children with developmental delays who are frantically trying to help their children reach milestones before those windows close. I’m reminded of the scene from the movie Titanic where the workers in the bowels of the sinking ship must hurry before the doors to the watertight compartments closed tightly, trapping them from ever escaping. Like the workers helping each other as they scramble through the doors that seal their fate, parents push their children toward those developmental windows, not wanting them to be left behind their peers. Of course, this windows theory drives the need for early intervention, making certain that children with developmental delays, such as autism, get the help they need as soon as they are diagnosed.
Despite our best efforts and concerns, Alex wasn’t officially diagnosed with autism until shortly after he turned four years old. At that time, the prevailing thought was that the main window of child development closed at age five, giving us only about a year to push Alex as far as he could go. As if dealing with a child with autism weren’t stressful enough, the thought of having a rather brief time limit to “fix” him only added to the worries. His special education preschool teacher (the same one who made him hold a sign that said, “IGNORE ME!”) apparently bought into this windows theory because she would repeatedly express concerns about Alex’s thumb sucking and trouble with toilet training. Basically, she seemed to believe that if he didn’t master toileting and stop sucking his thumb by his fifth birthday, he would never break his thumb sucking habit, nor would he ever toilet independently. Since I had sucked my thumb until I was nearly six years old, I knew her beliefs were wrong. Nonetheless, my own reading and research about child development indicated that many people believed the windows theory to be true, and I felt pressure to help Alex develop as many skills as possible before that dreaded window was supposed to close at age five.
As a middle school teacher, I was taught in education classes that students cannot learn much during adolescence because hormonal changes affect their brains and distract them from learning new skills. Like the windows concept, this adolescent learning plateau hypothesis may be true in theory, but I have found both ideas to be false in practice. I know that my seventh graders learn new skills in the year that they spend with me, and I have the data to prove it. Similarly, children continue learning after that alleged window closes at age five; I have observed that Alex has gained a great deal of knowledge and skills after he turned five. Despite his preschool teacher’s dire predictions, he did stop sucking his thumb and started using the toilet on his own—in his own good time, when he was ready to master these tasks. Ironically, once Alex turned five and we got past that dreaded window that nagged me, even if I didn’t totally buy into the theory, I felt a rush of fresh air come into our lives. No longer racing against an arbitrary clock, we continued working with Alex and celebrated each milestone, knowing that learning is not something to be rushed, but rather to be enjoyed as a lifelong pursuit with each person mastering skills on his or her own timetable. Thankfully, we have found this to be true with Alex, who continues to learn and develop, long after his fifth birthday has past.
“So she helped him climb out through a window, and he fled and escaped.” I Samuel 19:12