Zoom Out to See Results
Zoom Out to See ResultsMarch 4, 2016, Marilyn Lord
A really good ABA program always begins with a supervisor asking parents what results they hope to see from their child’s program. Improved communication often tops the list, of course. However, parents can usually speak at longer lengths about the relief they seek from behavior challenges -- especially public ones. Over time, the list of "safe" family destinations have dwindled, and one of the main jobs of a supervisor is to help reverse that trend.
By far the most difficult setting for a meltdown is one where groups of parents and children come together in large numbers. Amusement parks, restaurants, movie theaters, and school events can magnify the challenge -- and the comparison to what is supposed to be normal. Beleaguered parents of children with autism can cross most settings off their list, but one is usually unavoidable, and that is school.
When Adam was in first grade, I did the drop-offs and pick-ups feeling that he was too little to ride the bus. A lot of parents thought like me, and most of us were out there lined up just like the kids. Each classroom had an exterior door and students entered and exited there while the main entrance was saved for visitors and special pick-ups.
As I approached Adam’s classroom one cloudy afternoon, I could hear a child screaming from the other side of the windowless metal door. I thought, "Oh please, please, let that not be mine." But, after only a few more seconds, I knew it was.
In my last blog I shared the pitfalls of coming in uninvited, but since it was almost dismissal anyway (and I was pretty sure I could stay composed this time), I tapped, and Adam’s teacher let me in.
I immediately saw the aftermath of a tornado. An incredible number of papers were torn and scattered everywhere. Every issue of Scholastic News that Adam could get his hands were included. Markers, books, and all kinds of supplies were thrown about too. Among the debris I saw the velcro backed braille word cards of his sweet, blind classmate so fiercely stomped into the carpet that they looked permanently fused there. Adam was leaping from one table to the next and screaming like both the conqueror and caged all at the same time. I looked at Adam’s teacher and she seemed to read my next thought: "I had to evacuate the classroom", she said.
Sometimes something is so beyond fixing that you decide the best thing to do is try not to make it worse. To accomplish that (given my track record) I decided I had to impersonate our ABA supervisor, Malia, and channel her wisdom. "Ignore the behavior", I heard her say.
So I whispered my apologies to his teacher, and calmly informed Adam that it was time go now. "End on a success", was the advice that came to me next. "Let’s just throw this one paper away, Adam", as I placed my hand over his and we scooped up a single sheet and placed it in the trash while he screamed even louder. "Find something to praise". "You’re walking with me so nicely, Adam. Thank you."
With no secret passageway to allow a merciful escape, my red-faced shrieking son and I had no choice but to walk past a line of silent, staring parents waiting for their overdue children. I could not console myself with a thought of "they’ve probably been through this themselves" because their faces confirmed they had not.
As we hit the street for the block-long walk to the car, the wider world fixed its gaze on us. I steeled my spine and willed myself not to cry. "Stay calm. It will be over sooner that way. Keep finding something to praise."
The 15 minute drive home and the emergency snack in the car began to take the oxygen out of Adam’s fire. More of Malia’s wisdom came to me: "Don’t recount the event too soon after. Give it several hours, or even until the next day before revisiting the episode, otherwise the shame he feels from the memory may reignite the behavior."
Now home, and with Adam quietly playing with his toys in a nearby room, I had a private moment to sit at the kitchen table and rest my head in my hands. "How long would it be", I thought, "before the school tells me Adam is beyond what the district can handle?"
When my teenage daughter arrived home from her school, I asked if she could watch Adam while I went back to his class to retrieve his backpack. Of course, the backpack wasn’t essential, but a reason to return and apologize was.
When I arrived an hour later, the classroom was mostly back in order. Gratefully, I saw the braille cards back in their proper spot. Adam’s teacher, who all the children called "Ms. G" for simplicity, was still there. I began with a profuse apology and for the first time I could see that something had been spilled on her avocado green velour track suit. "Yes, Adam got hold of a water bottle", she explained with a laugh. "I was wearing a scarf at the time too, but I managed to get it off before he choked me with it!", as she pantomimed the rapid removal.
I laughed weakly, as Ms. G. continued recalling the event with more ironic humor. She revealed a bit of her stomach, pointed to it and said, "I’m thinking of getting a tattoo right here in the shape of a foot with a caption that reads: "Adam Was Here!".
My mind was not quite as quick as her wit, so when the words "foot" and "here" finally came together, my head reverberated with two other words: "Oh!" and "No!". It really was that bad. But Ms. G’s humor was sincere and I was extremely thankful for her positive way of processing a really difficult afternoon.
I wish I could say that this was to be an isolated case, but there would be more evacuations, more head-in-hand days, and more worries that I would soon be hearing "Enough!" from the school district. Ms. G. had to stop wearing her avocado green track suit -- Adam always seemed to have a tougher day when she did; perhaps pointing to the memory and shame that Malia foretold.
Ms. G. would become a sort of support liaison for Adam’s future teachers at the school. Third, fourth, and fifth grade all had their "memorable" moments too. The school’s phone number on my caller ID generated a sort of PTSD response in me. Still, the principal was very kind. Sometimes she would call just to say that she realized I hadn’t had a good report in a while and she wanted to tell me that Adam had done something really great that day.
Time, and a lot of hard working educators and specialists, can heal many things. When Adam started his first week of high school two years ago, I emailed Ms. G. a picture of him in a suit and tie at his sister’s college graduation. I told her that the thing everybody says about Adam now is how polite and well-mannered he is. I said she wouldn’t believe how much he has changed, and how grateful I was that she persevered through so much.
Two weeks ago, Adam surprised me with a conversation starter that had nothing to do with food. He said his high school was performing the musical "42nd Street" the next evening. He wanted us to go.
I admit, the past hasn’t become so dim as to allow me to be perfectly at ease in my seat in a school auditorium filled with video recording parents awaiting their child’s Broadway moment. But I do have to thank the same alertness that I once used to analyze the potential perils of the situation with now putting a spotlight on how far my kids have come. So, while the other parents were zooming in on their children, I was zooming out on mine. Looking at the larger journey allowed me to appreciate the wonderful performance in the seats next to me as much as the one happening on stage. In both cases, the best I’ve seen yet.