Saturday, July 30, 2011

It's All in How We See

We were driving around in Glastonbury, near where Anna was having art camp. In fact, Ethan and I were killing time before we needed to pick up Anna from said art camp.

"Miss D is that way!" he pointed. Well, actually he said her real name, but let's just keep it at "D."

Indeed he was right. The medical complex where "D," his outpatient occupational therapist in addition to Birth to 3 for just about an entire year, was was just down the street.

"Do you want to go see her?" I asked on a whim.

"Yeah!" Ethan answered. He answers yes to almost everything these days, even if he means no, but he seemed enthusiastic. As we drove, I began to feel trepidation. We'd never formed this deep, bonded relationship with D. the way we had with some of the Birth to 3 therapists. I think some of that had to do with the fact that we saw her just once a week at an office rather than several times a week in the comfort of our home.

That was one reason.

When we got into the blessed air conditioning, and they called D. from the back, and she came out behind the glass to talk and say hi and seemed genuinely happy to see us, I remembered the other reason.

As we stood talking near the bathrooms, Ethan, once he had said his hello, didn't feel the need to say much else. He instead went to play with the water fountain. He did this for a few minutes, and then actually started to kind of push his body along the wall near the restrooms -- something he rarely does.

Then I heard and remembered one of D.'s "clucks" -- these little sounds made under the tongue, accompanied by short sighs and sometimes shakes of the head, whenever Ethan was doing something "inappropriate." In that moment I could almost jump into her occupational therapist's brain and read her thoughts. "Oh, he's still doing that sensory seeking stuff, is he? Still distracted by that water fountain, too?" Oh Ethan, what are we going to do with you? she used to sigh sometimes during therapy, while shaking her head, as if he was some kind of lost cause.

This brought me back to the other appointment Ethan used to have with a speech therapist in this very same building. "J." was such a kind and well-meaning woman, but nearly every session ended with limited success. She appeared to say and do all the "right" things, therapeutically speaking. That was just it. Everything was running as if by a script, the kinds of scripts we encourage our kids on the spectrum to grow beyond. Let's play with the stove...stir the soup...Ethan, do you want some? Each word spoken painfully slowly, perfectly enunciated. Each play action crafted to match some milestone/developmental chart somewhere.

There was no heart, no connection. And I KNOW our kids can sense that.

At school this year Ethan was blessed with a wonderful and caring staff. We could have had it so much worse, I know. Yet few of them truly connected with Ethan. This certain therapist in particular didn't seem to realize (and I'm not quite sure how to tell her) that she overwhelms him. Ethan takes a little longer to respond than the average kid. Apparently that doesn't fly in the school setting. In an attempt to be well-meaning and make sure he stayed on task and didn't get upset about having to go to school (which happened just once, maybe twice, and without a huge tantrum) she would nearly ambush him at the door with his schedule. Speaking in a language that I would almost call "special needs baby talk" she would slowly and loudly ask, "What are we going to do today?" and then have him point to every picture on his schedule and say it, and then whisk him off down the hall.

The one person he DID connect with at school, a para he had for a few months, would on the other hand stand back, smile and wait for him to approach. If he didn't, she'd say something like, "What are you being shy about, little guy?" with a laugh, tousle his hair, and say, "Let's go to class!"

Something Ethan's very favorite therapist in the world once said always stays with me. Jessica, from Birth to 3, is to this day probably one of Ethan's actual and only "friends," after his family. She came to visit the other day and he cried when she had to leave. He adores her.

"Some of these therapists," she had said awhile ago, "just need to just treat these kids as kids first and not kids with autism."

In some cases, of course, specialized training and approaches are absolutely necessary. There are reasons, very good ones, why people are trained to work with kids on the spectrum.

But what are they seeing when they first see our kids each day?

Are they seeing their "issues?" Are they seeing the lists and goals and explanations provided by all of their books? Or are they seeing the child? No kid just wants to be a problem to be solved. Some kids can feel when someone is solely trying to solve them, not connect with them. Ethan can spot this from a mile away.

I commend anyone who chooses to work with kids who have special needs. But I wish I could ask some of them -- urge them -- to see the child first. Then the special needs. Doing that, I believe, will give them the greatest potential for making that sought-after connection.


Anonymous said...

you can just tell, can't you? the ones who see - really see - our kids for who they are. there's that popular saying: "when you meet one child with autism, you meet one child with autism." while the ambush-child-with-schedule routine might be just what my kid needs, it's certainly not the best approach for every child.

and oh, D's "clucking" just makes me mad!

Deb said...

I am so sure you "get" this! :) Can't you just hear the clucks? You probably have! It's so hard because I am grateful these people have gone into the profession...they DO care...but there is a professional, aloof kind of caring, and then there is the real deal.

Anonymous said...

Yes!!!!! I've noticed that my son just kind of ignores those people- the ones who don't seem to truly care about him- and naturally gravitates toward the more open, caring people. I think that's kind of neat that they can pick up on that at such a young age (especially when you take into account the social handicaps that come with autism!)

Deb said...

Tell me about it...our kids are supposedly "socially unaware" or whatever yet they can sense this kind of stuff from a mile away!