Nine years ago I was given a key position as the primary 1:1 teacher of a nine year old on the autism spectrum. It was intense ABA therapy with an oversight team focused on success and a DOE that was auditing to track performance. I worked with her from 7 am in her home, through the school day in Wahiawa, Hawaii, then back to her home for homework and daily living activities until 5 or 6 pm.
When i first met Kristin, she was living on a rug with her six year old sister in the living room of the family home. Her mother lived in a bedroom with her boyfriend next to the room where her two daughters slept and ‘took as their room,’ their space. The other room on the top floor belonged to her ex-convict uncle who kept the door locked with a padlock at all times. The grandparents lived downstairs in their own room.
In the mornings it was quite routine for the Mom’s boyfriend to be playing ‘craps,’ with 2-3 friends in the living room as Mom looked on or lounged in bed. The girls would have their eyes fixed on some Disney movie about princesses usually. The Mom, uncle and boyfriend all had the kind of tooth problems that plague people who are heavy ‘ICE’ users or crystal meth users. Ice drug use is a horrible open-secret that plights Hawaii worse than Ebola.
If you think that this is a pity story about how bad some kids have it, you are wrong. Kristin actually ran that household with a tight iron fist. Yes, the nine year old on the autism spectrum basically had everyone walking on egg shells around her. In lickety split timing Kristin could ‘snap’ and claw at your forearm, rip your shirt down the middle, draw blood, pitch physical objects, or cat jump on you. Her hash browns were very important to her, as was television viewing. She could not tolerate anything else from anybody.
Kristin could scream with perfect pitch, but she would/ could not utter a word. However, her fine and gross motor skills were very strong. She could write letters of equal proportions and do almost grade level math. Her emotional control, impulse control and mental flexibility were in great deficit though. Those are all executive function skills.
Things started to turn around when I had her see me talk to her Mother, and the Supervisor/ Psychiatrist about kicking the uncle out of the room and fixing up the room for the girls. Kristin and her sister transitioned into the room and the changes in behavior were happening on a weekly basis. Kristin began taking pride in brushing her hair like one of the Disney princesses, I suppose, and was very on-point about keeping her room tidy.
All I did was push and see that her basic human rights were being upheld and the girl began responding to me. You see, I did something for her. She appreciated it and probably decided to not claw me so much and give my meditation and belly-breathing ideas a try. I am so happy that I could be that person. I do things like that all the time. I love doing things like that and thats why I do this.
She learned to brush her teeth, floss, brush her own hair, dress herself in privacy, vacuum her room, make her bed every morning, ride her bike, or go to the beach to watch the weekly surfing contests on Oahu’s North Shore, (one time Kelly Slater was waxing his board next to her and me before a ‘heat’ on Sunset Beach). She began eating colorful fruit and balanced meals because that is what I expected of her. I set the expectations and she complied always. I won her heart in a way.
Kristin had found self-respect, dignity, and an increased quality of life. My actions communicated to her that I care. Someone took the time to care. I showed her how to vacuum her room. I helped her pick her outfits, her socks for the following day. I practiced simple relaxation tools with her, and she produced an incredible amount of school work. I empathically communicated with her non-verbally. I respected her. Namaste, some say. Lovingkindness others say. Just doing my job, I say.
This kind of communication is different than the rapid verbal communication we are used to. Since its based on actions, the one receiving the empathic communication takes time to process, but even immediately may begin to respond more receptively. This kind of communication is slower, it is an unfolding process. One thing I always say is that autism or no autism, we all know how people make us feel to a large degree. We don’t always remember what others say, but we remember how we felt in their presence. This integrates but goes beyond having great paraverbal skills (how you say what you say). Provided their is always respect, when we are genuinely caring for someone it does transcend how we say what we say at any given point in time.
I seek to sharpen my ability to communicate empathically with individuals having challenges communicating verbally as a growth hack catalyst to show them how they can strengthen their executive function skills, emotional intelligence and sensory skills. It is an abstract thought and a central part to how I establish and sustain rapport with students.
Easy Tip: Get Jack Johnson’s ‘En Concert’ & Bebel Gilberto’s ‘Tanto Tempo’ albums online and add them to your growing library of music you play to ‘create a relaxing atmosphere' in your home at key times.