Adapting to the Possibilities of Life When Dr. Donald Rosenstein discovered his son was autistic, he grieved the loss of many of his own dreams. But in watching his son grow, Rosenstein came to believe in the ability people have to adapt to, and even find joy in, difficult circumstances.

Adapting to the Possibilities of Life

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(Soundbite of This I Believe montage)

Unidentified Man #1: I believe in mystery.

Unidentified Woman: I believe in feelings.

Unidentified Man #2: I believe in being who I am.

Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the power of failure.

Unidentified Man #4: And I believe normal life is extraordinary.

Unidentified Man #5: This I believe.


Our This I Believe essay today was sent in to us by Dr. Donald Rosenstein. He's the clinical director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, D.C. His expertise is psychiatric care of the mentally ill. Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON: Donald Rosenstein told us, after hearing our series on the air, he had been thinking about what he might write, and then he woke up in the middle of the night and the essay just poured out of him. His belief, he found, resides at the intersection of his professional and personal life.

Here's Dr, Donald Rosenstein with his essay for This I Believe.

Dr. DONALD ROSENSTEIN (Clinical Director, National Institute of Mental Health): I believe in adaptation, that is the same stimulus does not invariably elicit the same response over time.

The first time I saw my son flap his arms, I nearly threw up.

My son Koby was two at the time, and he and my wife and I were at an evening luau in Hawaii. Dancers emerged from the dark, twirling torches to loud, rhythmic drumbeats. I thought it was exciting and so did Koby. He began to flap his arms — slowly, at first, and then with an intensity that mirrored the movement of the dancers.

In an instant, I was overwhelmed. I knew just enough about arm-flapping to know that it was characteristic of autism. I was confused, panicked and strangely preoccupied with the fear that I would never play tennis with my son as I had with my father. That one movement took on immediate, powerful and symbolic meaning. Something was terribly wrong with my boy.

Koby is 16 years old now. He lost his language, developed epilepsy and has struggled profoundly. We've all struggled, including Koby's little sister, Emma, but we've also adapted. Koby still flaps his arms and he's got the thick, muscular upper body one would expect after 14 years of isometric exercise. He's a sweet and beautiful boy, and together we've been on a journey into frightening and unknown territory. Like any fellow travelers, we've learned from each other and grown.

Koby's arm-flapping means something different to me now. It means that he's interested, tuned in and present in the moment.

That Koby has autism is old news at this point. We've grieved, survived and adapted. We've learned to be more patient, to celebrate more modest victories, and to connect with Koby whenever and however we can. Now, when Koby flaps, I'm happy for him and what it means about his engagement, not sickened by what it might mean for his and our futures.

Same stimulus, different response.

I believe that this lesson in adaptation has been one of Koby's greatest gifts to me, to our whole family. I've seen it as Emma's embarrassment over her brother's condition has faded and been replaced with compassion for those who struggle. And I've seen the influence of Koby's lesson in my own work, helping patients cope with illness and tragedy in their lives — like my patient who can finally celebrate her father's memory after years of debilitating grief that came with every anniversary of his death.

Last summer, Koby had a delirious romp in the ocean alongside Emma. Koby flapped his arms wildly in anticipation of each coming wave. Not quite the family beach day we had once envisioned, but a spectacular moment nonetheless.

Old heartbreak, new appreciation.

I believe that reframing a problem can help to overcome it. But adaptation is not the same as becoming tolerant of or inured to something. Adaptation allows for creative possibilities. Koby has adapted to us and we to him, and through this process our family has discovered deep and meaningful connections with each other — connections we never thought possible.

ALLISON: Dr. Donald Rosenstein with his essay for This I Believe. Rosenstein said that before he adapted to his son's illness, he wouldn't always know how to respond when his very sick patients would tell him, I just don't know what to do. Now his answer is, you do the best you can.

We hope you'll visit and consider submitting your own essay to our series. For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

HANSEN: Jay Allison is co-editor with Dan Gediman, John Gregory and Viki Merrick of this book "This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women."

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