We’re doing something a little different in the series this week—Elana Cohen’s Gallatin concentration isn’t ‘WTF’ by any means. I mean, it’s kind of a mouthful, but it doesn’t have a scoff-generating, out-there name, and we’ve all heard of autism and the controversy surrounding its treatment. What’s unusual about Elana is that she’s actually in Gallatin in the first place. The last three people I’ve interviewed, though all unique and interesting in their own ways, could easily wind up in an interdisciplinary class together (something like Love & Sex in the American Sitcom—I made that up but just go with it). Elana? Not so much. She represents another side of Gallatin not often exposed or even heard of. As someone who studies a vocational practice, she’s come to realize that the school of ‘individualized’ study is stock full with one, certain group of people—academics. Needless to say, the laid-back, sports-loving Elana doesn’t really feel like she’s found her niche there. What’s that, you say? A Gallatino who’s not all boner over Gallatin? WTF?
Read her interview below—not only does she have a refreshing take on individualized study at NYU, but after working with kids with autism, she’s got some interesting things to say about normal social interactions, therapists, and political correctness. Oh, and if you’re looking for an Ultimate Frisbee player, Elana’s your girl.
Annie Werner: What is your concentration exactly?
Elana Cohen: Therapeutic Benefits of Sports, Dance, and Theatre for Special Needs Kids.
AW: Is there a condensed version of your concentration title?
EC: [Laughs] That is the condensed version. My colloquium name is even longer: Effective Habilitation for Autism Must Be a Mind, Body Endeavor. I really just want to help people with special needs expend their energy in ways that are more constructive than they do now.
AW: Do you do more studies of autism or is it more about interacting?
EC: Interacting. I’ve been constantly interacting with autistic kids for years, so classes on theory are kind of elementary for me.
AW: How do you ‘interact’ with autistic kids? What’s it all about?
EC: Well one summer I was working with this kid at the 92nd street Y, and he would dart everywhere in small spaces, and he would bang on windows. I spent my days chasing after him, and I never got to eat lunch because he never ate anything. He just ran around. The security guards there got to know me because I was constantly having to wrap my arms and legs around this kid so that he wouldn’t disrupt all the programs at the Y. But one day there was this swing at the top of the ropes course that we got him to go on, and once he did, he started to smile and laugh and clap his hands. And I was just like “Oh my god, I saw him smile. This summer does have a purpose!” I thought to myself, I just need to get this kid to smile like that. That has to be what I do. It’s a lot about intuition and sensitivity.
AW: What draws you to autistic kids?
EC: They think differently. The stuff they say, mostly. The way they’re so honest. One time a boy looked up at me during an art project we were working on and he said, “Excuse me, Elana, we do not wear bathing suits to sleep?” and I answered him, but he really wanted to know, and then he asked me why we don’t wear bathing suits to sleep. They just say what’s on their minds. And if they can’t speak, then they don’t say it, but they communicate it in other ways. They don’t have a mean bone in their body.
AW: I know there’s a lot of “political correctness” controversy going on with the terming of special needs kids—what’s the best way to phrase it?
EC: Well you wouldn’t call it handicapped or retarded. Right now the most politically correct term is “a person diagnosed with autism.” Some parents I know will say “child with autism” rather than “autistic kid” to sort of focus on the fact that they’re a child or a person first before their condition.
AW: What’s the hardest part about working with ‘kids with autism?’
EC: The thing I fear the worst is that I’m only seen as a means to get a fun airplane ride or a snack from the fridge. That’s probably what it looks like to an outsider, and that’s what a lot of our interactions wind up being. But I’ve seen kids be happy to see me even though they can’t really communicate it. And they’ll take my wrist, which is just something a lot of them do, and it’s rewarding.
AW: Are there a lot of misconceptions about how to treat kids with autism?
EC: I’ve seen children with autism be treated in ways that I think are so inappropriate— like a Pavlov dog. It’s stifling and robotic, and it can be helpful for some of them, but I would rather connect with them and make them feel like I’m their friend. I also don’t think that we shouldn’t ask them questions. I think they know more than we think they do. Sometimes I would ask this kid who loved to flip at light switches, “Why do you care about light switches so much? What is it about them?” and he wouldn’t answer me, but at least he knew that I didn’t understand and that I want to understand.
AW: So having experienced all of this, what do you think about therapy for people with normal social skills?
EC: For me, therapy is kind of a farce. The technique is basically to just listen to what people have to say, don’t make any judgments, and reflect back what they say. A lot of people want that, but it’s not something worth paying thousands of dollars for. I’ve definitely felt social anxiety in my life. I’ve gone to therapy and been diagnosed with depression, and it may sound selfish, but working with these kids who had even less social skills than myself made me realize that I really had this socializing thing under control.
AW: Do you feel like you relate to autistic kids more than ‘regular’ people?
EC: No. Not at all. I like communicating, and I need to say what I feel and what I think, but that’s really hard to do that with people who are autistic.
AW: So I’m curious—why come to NYU to study this?
EC: In retrospect I shouldn’t have gone to NYU because it’s a lot of money. I had a fine time here, but I would have had a fine time anywhere. I haven’t been all that impressed with the academics. On paper it looks really great and the names of classes are all really impressive, but this is my last semester and probably no more than four have been really good, worthwhile classes. Really, I’ve only gotten jobs because of the name and the way my concentration looks.
AW: So what’s Gallatin’s selling point?
EC: Well, at first I was like, “Wow! Gallatin is so awesome because the people are so nice and accept my interests in all these different things, and the other schools are so stuffy and mean to deal with.” But now that I’ve been in Gallatin, I’ve sort of realized that what I thought was a place where everyone had different interests, it’s really a place where most of the people have the same interests. The interdisciplinary seminars we have to take don’t relate to anything I’m interested in. They’re all about history, media, culture, LGBT, and poverty stricken countries and poetry—academic subjects. And that’s fine. It’s just not really in my area of interest, but I have to take them.
AW: So you don’t really feel that the Gallatin community is very inclusive?
EC: I’ve just found that there seems to be this fad with a lot of people in Gallatin to study cultural theory/politics related stuff, but there’s more to Gallatin than that—I proudly don’t care about literature or cultural theory. I play sports and Ultimate Frisbee and run around and work with autistic kids. I don’t wear weird, old-fashioned glasses and puff up my hair and talk about why we should all be gay or polyamorous.
AW: Have you found community at NYU at all?
EC: I haven’t really. I’ve met some cool people in random places and classes. And I’ve met some really cool people in Gallatin, don’t get me wrong, but it’s been mostly in the dance/art workshops I’ve been in. But seriously, if there’s anyone in Gallatin out there who wants to play sports with me then let’s do it. I’m here.