Some of my formerly pristine dishware now feature small chips, relics of passing impacts with sink faucets and countertops. I often can’t find things when I need them now. And aside from occasionally finding my car keys in the freezer, the fault is not mine. 

Nor are these new battle medals the fault of the twin autistic, non-verbal girls who moved in with me—in a package deal with their mother—over two years ago. That leaves but one culprit that, for the sake of relationship management, I’ll classify as “endearing.”

Though Ally and Lexi turned 21-years-old in 2020, they may function at a 2- or 3-year-old level. Ignore any imagery of your child of that age. There are no crayon marks on the wall, no tantrums over dropped Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups, and my dog Kimi Raikkonen is not tormented relentlessly by various, life-scarring physical encroachments. 

Instead, they have caused my brain to decelerate and pay attention to how they live each day. They are the happiest people I know with life and leadership lessons to share. Here are a few.

First, they hold on loosely but don’t let go. Clinging too tightly is how plates get broken. At first, to watch them carry bowls to the sink after a meal was to wonder if I charged the electric sweeper. But just imagine this: five tiny fingertips of each hand, spread about a half-inch apart. Gaps between each palm and the dish couldn’t be bigger. 

Sure, we once found a dish placed in the knife drawer, but it arrived with care and unchipped. (Ahem.)

Yes, .38 Special said it first. But in action, it’s an economical use of energy; Ally and Lexi know the exact effort needed to succeed. I have a daily reminder that fear that manifests in combative energy brings worry and stress in life. In leadership, I shouldn’t care so much about the method, but the result: The safe delivery of dirty dishes to the sink in a way that brings employee accomplishment.

Lesson two: They are entirely in the moment. There is no dread or worry about what is next; they get over the past nearly immediately. 

A recent doctor’s visit required shots in the arm. Each took a turn. There was no dread. Of course, when the shots happened, they stung. But as quickly as they came, they went forever. I once asked a Major League pitcher after a game where he gave up a home run what he was thinking at the time. He said, “You have to have a short memory and move on.” As simple as this may sound, it is just the start. 

The absence of conditioned responses blesses Ally and Lexi. To not ham up the whining during an illness or to not evoke fake rage over an injustice lets them get back to the business of their sources of seemingly endless joy: Their virtual zoo of stuffed animals, Elmo videos, and their versions of dancing in the hallways. Their energy goes to what is productive to them. They move on.

Thirdly, they dance like no one is looking. The twins are not practicing a mantra from a self-help book—they simply do not care what anybody thinks about their happiness expressions. Their smiles and laughs are uninhibited. Lexi raises her eyebrows seemingly beyond her hairline and squeals loudly enough to pull over speeders on the highway. Ally gives condescending looks and smiles so broadly that her chin becomes her neck; she laughs maniacally as if she has executed her plot to empty my bank account to fund her Stuffed-Baby-of-the-Day Club.

There is no room for pride in their joy, no concern for their image. It’s contagious. I am more real around them, and I’ve come to remember that I’ve been more successful in times when I was able to be like them. Authenticity disarms others and builds trust. It’s an invitation, and they invite me to be led by them in ways I’d like to invite others. 

Finally, when they need help, they ask. It’s usually by slowly moving a frozen tablet into my field of view or grabbing a forearm while navigating along crowded walkways. There is no failure or shame in asking. It’s what they need from us to help them succeed in their goals.

There’s little more that boosts an employee’s self-worth than to have the boss ask them, authentically, for something beyond the task list. Being trusted with something personal to them gives me value; Finding the YouTube icon on a wayward iPad screen appeals to my want to be useful to and trusted by them. Giving others value can be easy.

Not everyone can be so lucky to have a pair of 21-year-old, non-verbal, autistic twin girls in their households to teach them about peace, joy, and leadership. But maybe, next time you notice that chipped soup bowl, you’ll be reminded to manage your energy, live in the present, be contagiously happy, and shamelessly reliant. 

2 thoughts

  1. Well written, my friend. For four years (until March 12), I worked with developmentally and/or intellectually disabled adults in a social program, day habilitation, or residential environment. Included were many on the autism spectrum. As much as I was able to give to all the people I worked with, they gave me so much more in return. It was an amazing gift to come to work each day and be greeted like a rock star, and to leave work being treated the same way.

    Liked by 1 person

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