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Autism pioneer Stanley Greenspan dies

By Michael Schulder, CNN
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Autism pioneer dies
  • Creator of an original approach to teaching children with autism died last Tuesday
  • Stanley Greenspan spent 30 years exploring the emotional lives of children
  • Greenspan treated strange behaviors as windows of opportunity
  • Autism
  • Parenting

(CNN) -- When a young mother named Marguerite Elisofon first contacted Dr. Stanley Greenspan, her baby daughter was interested in almost nothing. Samantha just stared into space. She was, said her mother, "in a distant land."

Elisofon remembers thinking that maybe Greenspan "could be our Magellan and give us a road map to follow with new and better games to help our daughter catch up and be like other toddlers."

Stanley Greenspan, child psychiatrist, spent 30 years exploring the emotional lives of children. The creator of an original approach to teaching and parenting children with autism died last Tuesday at the age of 68.

Greenspan called his method "floor time."

The process, he said, begins by "entering a child's world ... and bringing the child into a shared world."

"Then," said Dr. Greenspan, "we get cooking."

What Dr. Greenspan means by "cooking" can be seen on this video.

A mother and father are trying hard to connect with their 3-year-old son, Alex, to no avail. The fire is lit at one minute and 51 seconds into the video. Alex makes a sound. Not a word. Just a sound. "Eeh."

From his vantage point -- on the floor of his office -- Stanley Greenspan seizes that "Eeh" to steer Alex's parents into their little boy's world, in much the same way that he guided the Elisofons into Samantha's world at the beginning of an 18-year journey that Samantha's mother recalls.

In an interview with CNN last summer, Greenspan was ailing and in pain. But his passion was intact.

"Each and every week when I see patients, I learn something new," he said.

Children were Greenspan's teachers. Parents too. "I still am amazed at gifted parents and what they teach me in my practice," he said.

One thing that makes his approach to autism, and parenting in general, so distinctive, is that he treated what appeared to be strange behaviors as windows of opportunity -- as new paths to distant lands.

Watching Greenspan recount for CNN the story of an autistic boy he'd seen a few days earlier reveals something beyond parenting though -- when you're passionate about your work, you can be ailing and cooking at the same time.

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