My Shmita Year

That’s why, once every seven years in fact, this year, the one we started yesterday — the Torah demands that both we and the land take a Sabbatical. In Hebrew, it’s called a Shmita Year — a year of release.” Rabbi Auerbach, September 2021

This was exactly what I needed to hear, this on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. I was giddy. My sabbatical was only two weeks old and already I was having moments of worry about how I was spending my time. I asked the Rabbi who delivered this sermon if she would send me a copy, knowing that I would use it as a reference over and over again throughout the year.

The idea that my sabbatical was coinciding with a Shmita Year gave even more meaning to this gift of time.

And yes, as the Rabbi said, like most people, I feel best when I am busy with work and work-related responsibilities. That is why although I have taught for almost fifty years, I have had no intention of retiring. The work has suited me so in content and in commitment and I am amazed how much of it has continued to be so alive for me. Of course, there are the committee meetings, the tediousness of report writing, and marking papers and exams, but on the whole, the joys of teaching undergraduate and graduate students and thinking about the mysteries of challenges in language and communication for children on the autism spectrum have absorbed me for so long that even I am in awe of the sustainability.

After being comforted by the idea of Shmita, I started to wonder if that was exactly what I was after — a time of rest and release. Yes, in a way that’s it and in a way, it’s not. I am so grateful to be free from the total absorption that I succumb to when I am teaching.  In the Fall, I made plans to see the foliage in Vermont and to visit Lake Placid where I had never been. These trips would definitely not have been on the calendar during a typical semester. 

For sure, I want this sabbatical to be distinctly different from the other two that I have taken in the past forty-eight years. I want to reflect and see if I can identify the recurring themes that have occupied my thinking as a developing professional and person. And I wonder if I can tie those themes together into a cohesive narrative.  Can I articulate the interplay between how my perspective on working with children with challenges and their families was impacted by my evolution as a person and vice versa.  I want to sink into reflection about my life. Perhaps this is a natural urge given my age and the fact that I am in the last chapter of my career. I am definitely aware of the ‘it’s now or never’ urgency as I am sure this will be my last sabbatical.

And mostly, I want to honor and respect all I have thought about during my fifty years of lived experience as a speech-language therapist. I have ended up with a very different idea of what language therapy is than where I started. This is most likely a universal experience in all professions as we find the essence of the work.

‘I wish I knew then what I know now.’ But what is it that you know now but didn’t know then? How did you learn it? I learned by being faced with countless questions, my own and others, which led me to find my footing. And once the anxiety of the ‘not knowing’ faded and I started to know who I was, I started to understand what I had chosen to do with my life.

When I started my career as a young therapist, I was interested in cataloguing a child’s developmental milestones. How many words did she say, how long were her sentences, what questions did she understand? The goal of this assessment was to compare these results to the norms of typically developing children of the same age. Now, that couldn’t be further from my mind. In my work with children on the autism spectrum, I teach my students not to look for pathology or disorder but rather to look for universal and pervasive human motivations, desires, and drives; the moments they appear; and the forms they take.

Look for the gleam in the eyes, not the “lack of eye contact.” Look for the curiosity, not the “repetitive play.” Look for the communication, not the “words.” In my experience, this shift sets the stage for an interaction between the therapist and the child that supports the development of a person. As simple as it sounds, it takes practice to pivot from a view of what is wrong with the child to what is right. But once you take that step, the relationship itself has the potential to turn into a therapeutically-bathed experience, for both the child and the therapist.

When I think back about my sessions at my first job at the Bancroft School in New Jersey in 1971, a brand new clinician from an excellent graduate program, I shudder at what I was doing. I saw little Beth, who had a hearing impairment, and instead of finding out what she loved to do, I had her sit at a table, look at pictures, and organize them into a story sequence. And she was miserable, often pouting and squirming. I was so uneasy with what I was doing, but really didn’t even know that there might be options let alone what they were.

So now I am sharing what seems like wisdom, profoundly simple and yet, eye opening. The child who is encountering challenges in communicating needs exactly what all children need — to feel loved, to be delighted in, to be respected, to be enjoyed, to be listened to, to be heard. That’s a goal in and of itself. This can only happen if the adult interacting with the child searches for and magnifies all of the positives and all the potential that this child is bringing to the world rather than checking off a list of deficits and delays. 

And what about Beth? Today, I would bring Beth to the therapy room and surround her with toys. I would see which toys caught her eye and join her play with great affect and interest. I would make a simple story with her about the dolls and the blocks, using whatever she gave me as her verbal and non-verbal contributions. And we would co-construct a play scenario that brought her joy. 

So how to use this gift of a sabbatical? Sometimes I think what I want to write about is inconsequential and sometimes I think it’s deeply meaningful. It comes from one person’s life as a therapist, but it might be connected to how we all think of our developing expertise over a lifetime and where we arrive over forty or fifty years. And in this case, because my lifetime has been spent with children with challenges and their struggling families, sharing what feels like wisdom may be the biggest bonus of my Shmita year.