“Ok, and on the last page of your syllabus you’ll see that you’re required to do a 3-page paper on some subject that we cover in this class, or you can do a service learning project and make an oral presentation to the class on your experience.”
From the haze of sleepiness on the first day of classes, I bl
“...3-year-old triplets. Two are severely Autistic, one is typical. They are using behavioral psychology to teach them. Classical conditioning. They’ve been doing it for a few months now and are seeing some really cool results. They have five slots for volunteers. If you’re interested, let me know after class.”
It was almost a week before their father called me for a phone interview. Another couple of days before he called again to give me directions to their house and set up a time.
I knew nothing about Autsim. I had read a book once with a minor character who had Autism. And I’d seen Rain Man. But for some reason, I was fascinated by it. Wanted to learn more.
It was a Friday afternoon, and I was sitting in a chair in their formal living room, listening as the father of these boys talked to the volunteers about the program. They’d started a few months ago. The kids were completely nonverbal. Wouldn’t sit still. Self-injury, tantrums, no potty skills, no self help skills. The impact this had on the parents’ lives was staggering. Two. Not one, but two like this. Plus their other son, who was also three and had needs of his own. The talk about the program was going over my head. I’d heard it all before, reinforcement and motivation and all these other things. I was ready to get to the action. He split us up into two groups, and I was listed in the group for Jacob.
One last cautionary note. Just observe. Don’t interact, don’t interrupt. Just watch.
We walk into the room, sit on the floor against one wall. Watching the therapist work was like watching some kind of dance. Jacob was sitting at a table, she was in the floor in front of him. There were toys and food and a cup of juice by her. There were bins of various items she was using scattered about. A board in front of her had the program goals written on it. It was like the mad hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland. When she finished at the table, she put her things away, and followed him about the room.
Then, he notices us. Looks over everyone, settles on me. Comes and sits in the floor in front of me. So serious. Scoots right up to me so his knees are touching my legs, cross-legged, mirroring my posture.
He is small for his age, being a triplet. Red hair, blue eyes. Pale skin awash with freckles. I look at the therapist for a clue as to what to do. We were told to observe. He reaches out and takes my hand. I’m taken aback. She smiles and says he likes me. I smile at him, and he jumps up and runs off. But I’m hooked.
I start researching Autism. Reading through the paperwork their father gave us. Am amazed by what I learn. The kids are not “retarded”. They just think differently. Don’t take social cues. So they don’t learn the same way as other kids. I’m amazed at how hard these kids work. They’re working 40 hours a week, learning. Six weeks into the my volunteer time, the father takes me off to the side. He says that there is a spot opening up for a therapist. Would I be interested in a job.
Yes. Yes I would.
Over the next three years, I worked with Jacob. When a spot opened up, I worked with his brother too, and another child who started a program like theirs. I started helping other parents set up programs with the help of the triplets’ dad, learning how to do what would eventually become my career. I went to workshops to learn about consulting. To learn more about the program. I found a very deep love for these kids, and a need to help them understand. Their frustration became my frustration. I understood how they thought, and how to teach them.
I remember one day in particular when everything clicked for me. I had been there for a few months. I was learning the ropes still, still stumbling sometimes. Jacob could sense weakness, and he would pounce on you when you were down. We were potty training. A phrase that struck fear in the hearts of all of Jacob’s therapists. This red-haired little boy had a temper to match. I was having a bad week with him. Had decided I was doing them a disservice. Had decided he didn’t like me and I was going to quit. I was sitting in their bathroom, waiting for his father to bring him in from his nap. Cold dread in the pit of my stomach, I ran over the words again and again. How I would quit.
Jacob came in, looked at me out of the corner of his eye. Looking at the room. Bad mood. I think, Well. This will be easy. Thank you Jake. And then, this kid spins on his heel, and comes over to where I’m sitting on the step into the bathtub. Gets in my lap – like a baby. Snuggles me. His father and I exchange startled looks.
Something you wanted to talk about with me, Glow?
No, I think I’m good.
That day, we were playing with a toy. It was a robot that had numbers on the front. It would spell the numbers and you were supposed to touch the number. He couldn’t spell, so he was getting uber frustrated. I’m trying to help him, but he doesn’t want my help. He wants to do it himself. I am sensing an epic tantrum in the works. So I think..and think…wait. He can push a button, we’ve taught him that. We’ve taught him numbers.
Touch the number that is spelled n-i-n-e.
I cringe inwardly and say, “Jake…touch nine.”
He looks at me, looks at the toy. Uncertain. Two commands, not usually put together. I prompt him. Pointing at the nine button.
Great Job! Super spelling!!! Press the number that is spelled s-e-v-e-n.
Now he’s looking at me. Expectant.
“Jake, touch seven.”
He does. Gets the praise from the toy. Looks back at me, and I will never forget that moment. There was this look. This comprehension. This. People might be cool after all. This shared moment with him. And the slow, HUGE smile that spread across his face. Looking in my eyes. Waiting for me to smile back. Acknowledge our moment.
I’m laughing and crying at the same time.
This might not seem like a lot…but so many things happened in that moment. He took a social cue from me, put together things without being taught. And he was playing appropriately with a toy. With another person.
Autism is so frustrating. You have to learn to tell the difference between regular little kid stubbornness and something that the child honestly can’t do because their minds don’t work the same way ours do. (Team meetings with their father often heard the phrase, “is this a ‘can’t do’ or a ‘won’t do’?” But that moment, I saw HIM. His eyes cleared, and we had a little moment of connection. That smile. Sharing something with me. I began to chase those moments. It was always my own personal goal to have them. Because they represented a chance at being able to function in society.
Jacob and his brother had diagnoses of both severe Autism and severe mental retardation. Jake’s first goal was to sit in a chair for five seconds without screaming, hitting, biting, head-banging, or kicking the therapist. Five seconds. Nonverbal, no skills, it looked hopeless. When I got there, the kids were using some simple sign language, and had picked up a couple of almost unintelligible words. They had to sit at their table and work for ten minutes during the session. It was an ordeal to get him to sit down. To work. To not tantrum. Some days, it was five 2 minute sessions there. By the time I left, he was almost six. My two-hour therapy session was required to have 45 minutes of table time. When I would come in, I would sit down to read the notes from the other therapists since I’d been there, and he would come to me and try to drag me to the table. Ready to get started on the fun stuff. They talked. Well enough that strangers could understand them. Potty trained, able to dress and feed themselves. Make their own beds. Play with other kids appropriatedly - if still with a therapist shadowing them. Tantrums still happened, but rarely. They were overcoming the roadblocks life sent them.
Since Jacob, I have worked with a lot of kids. I have learned a lot about Autism, and about the kids it effects. But my little blue-eyed, red-haired Jacob will forever stand out to me. He was my first, and my best.