It was a cold Fall day as I took my seat in my Introduction to Psychology class. All the leaves had fallen off the trees on campus and a brisk wind howled through the campus building doors. There were about 60 other bright-eyed, young, “know-it-alls” in class with me as the professor started to lecture. Half way through his lecture about neurons and synapses, the professor announced that we would be having a visitor to the class today, and introduced an attractive couple that had just moved back to the US from England.
I listened while the woman talked about her young son, Jacob, who had been given a diagnosis of Autism, right prior to their return to the US. “What’s Autism?” I thought. I had never heard the word before. What did it mean? She talked about how Jacob didn’t know his name. How he wouldn’t respond to it when someone called him. How when you walked into a room, he didn’t lift his head up to look at you. How he never acknowledged anyone with even a simple hug; how a hug hurt him. How he wasn’t able to talk and how he had some “odd” behaviors.
The young couple sent around a picture of their son, Jacob. When his picture made it to me, I was confused. I sat there and starred at a beautiful little boy. He had the bluest eyes I had ever seen. And while they were not looking at the camera, you could tell how angelic he was. He didn’t look like there was anything wrong with him, how could he have Autism?
They passed around a signup sheet, looking for volunteers to work with their son. I placed my name on it. It would be good experience I thought.
The first time I met Jacob, he came toddling into the family room from the kitchen. I remember getting onto the floor and saying “Hi, Jacob”, but he just walked right past me. Actually it looked more like he had pranced right past me on his tippy toes. But there was no response to my friendly attempt to meet him. I found it odd. After some additional time had passed, and more people showed up at their home to meet Jacob, we learned about an intervention they wanted to use with Jacob, called Applied Behavioral Analysis.
I sat horrified as I watched this little boy scream, kick, hit, and scratch at his mother in her attempt to get him to sit in a little chair. About 20 minutes into the therapy, with tears streaming from my eyes and my heart ripped in half, I got up and left the room. Teresa followed me out. I sobbed as I explained to her that I was not going to be able to do that to him. I told her that I thought it was horrible to make him scream and tantrum like that.
She listened calmly and told me she knew how I felt. She told me that it killed her to see Jacob like this as well, but this intervention was one of the best ways to teach Jacob the skills he would need to be ready to go to school in 3 years. She asked me to please come back a few days later and try a session with him. I reluctantly agreed. More surprisingly, I actually did return.
During that first session with Jacob, he didn’t scream at me when I asked him to come. He came to me and sat in the chair without incident. I wondered what had happened in the days since my last visit. I was instructed by his mother to tell him “Do this”, and then clap my hands. I did as instructed and then took his little hands and helped prompt him to clap his hands. After the very first trial, Jacob started to scream and kick his feet. “Keep going”, Teresa pushed. I kept presenting trials of clapping hands and with each new trial, Jacob’s screams got more intense. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes….I couldn’t believe that I was making this little boy scream like this. What kind of person was I?
About 25 minutes into the session, I presented the exact same trial that I had presented to him for the previous 25 minutes–“Do this”, then clapped my hands: but something magical happened this time. There was an instant stop to his screaming, which was replaced by a giggle. Jacob then took my hands and clapped them for me. How could he go from screaming to giggling in a second flat? Did he really understand what I wanted him to do all this time? Why did he clap my hands? Teresa, who was watching the session, just cried. “He’s getting it”, she said. “What a sense of humor he’s got”.
This was my first introduction to Autism and my first experience working with a child with Autism. I was 18 and so naive about what it was and how to treat a child afflicted with it. Thankfully, Jacob saw it in himself to teach me the ropes and to even make those magical transformations in my presence. Without his magical transformation in front of my eyes on that very first day, I don’t think I would have had the strength to return to work with him again, or to forge on in this field for the last 12 years.
He taught me that not everything is as it seems….for even in his biggest tantrums, a giggle could literally be right around the corner. With a gleam in his eyes that said, “Yeah, I get it. Now let me put a twist on it!”
* Stories From the Heart is an ongoing series of user contributed heart warming stories, that shine light on the Autism experience.