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Authors: Donna Williams

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BOOK: Somebody Somewhere
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The concept of discipline commits the crime of assuming that the misbehaving one stands there asking oneself, why? I lived in a “what you see is what you get” reality. So many people merely proved and reproved that there was no point in trying to penetrate their incomprehensibility. Such is the making of high-functioning (albeit, smiling) robots.


I visited another school. It was a specialized school meant to address the needs of autistic children. I was at my most polished, having borrowed from memories of Willie's apparent impressiveness. Inside I was shaking.

I was ferried about the school on the standard visitors' tour. Here one sits through a video and sees some empty classrooms. Later, theory and philosophy are served up pleasantly with biscuits and tea, and one is allowed to put one's name on a list for emergency teacher's aides.

About to leave, I decided to explain my situation to one of the senior workers there. She told me about monthly gatherings they had at a respite care house they ran. She gave me some numbers through which I might be able to meet some others like me.


I entered the room full of chatty school mothers who had gathered at the respite house. Coffee cups, coffee, sugar, and milk lined the kitchen bench around which mothers hovered and discussed everything from educational toys to tantrums.

I found myself tracing the frosted glass pattern on the living room
mirror. Act normal, I shouted silently to myself and went to stand in the kitchen. Step by step I became drawn like a fly to the corner of the room.

Only one person knew who I was—the staff member from the school. She had told the mothers I was coming and there was some excitement about meeting one of the five to ten percent of autistic people who had “made good” as a “the worlder.” Not having all met each other, the mothers did the rounds, trying to find out which one I was.

“Do you have children at the school?” one of them asked. “No,” I answered, “I am just interested in doing some work as an emergency teacher's aide at the school.” “Really?” this woman replied, “You know, I work at the school, and I'm looking for two people to do some emergency work there on the school holiday program. Do you have any experience with autistic children?” I remembered the camp I went on in the United Kingdom. “Yes,” I replied honestly. “Here's my number,” she said. “I'm sure I'll be able to find you some work.” She started to walk off (possibly to seek out the autistic woman she'd heard was there somewhere among those in the gathering). “Oh, there is actually another reason I am interested in working with autistic children,” I said. “I guess I should mention that I have been told that I'm autistic.” The woman faltered a bit and it looked like her face might fall on the floor. “I hope that doesn't change the offer,” I added. “Of course not,” she said, but she didn't look too sure.

I called the number again and again to confirm the dates. “Well, we're not quite sure yet,” said the woman I'd spoken to. “You'll have to phone me back.” On the fifth call I was told that the plans had changed at the last minute. I'd been promised three weeks' work. It was now only possible for me to have a few days.


The dates arrived for my work at the school for autistic children.

There were seven children there for the school's holiday program.

I was barely through the door when I received a familiar welcome.


“Donna, come and say hello to Eric,” said my mother.

A fire consumed me in a flash and my head moved straight into line with
Eric's stomach as my feet ran at full charge toward him. I was a thirteen-year-old steam train. He moved out of the way at the last moment to avoid the head butt. My head crashed into the wall and I saw sparks just before the lights went out.

She's crazy,” my mother had explained for the umpteenth time.

I couldn't help it. I had felt emotions.


An eleven-year-old had greeted me by sinking his teeth deeply into my arm. There was a funny sensation to which I didn't know how to respond.

The boy jumped away from me like something possessed. To his shock and horror, I hadn't reacted. The other two workers were surprised at his reaction. “Take a look at that,” said the worker who'd hired me. “He can't make sense of your reaction. Didn't it hurt you?” “I think so,” I responded, not quite sure but sure from their responses that it should have. You should have said “ouch,” I reminded myself silently. People say “ouch” if they get bitten. I told myself I'd remember to say it next time.

The children arrived in a trickle. Among them was Jody, who walked on her toes and was small for her age and whose blue eyes looked nowhere. Upon entering, she turned herself into a table: feet and hands flat on the floor underneath and behind her, stomach facing upward to the ceiling.

“This one's very retarded,” said the worker who'd hired me. “More a case of retardation than autism,” she added. An image flashed through my mind.


Staring into nothingness, I had casually propped my legs and feet behind my head. There was nothing wrong in looking like a Frisbee. It felt good to tie myself up in knots: self-contained, in control.


There were two other children whose ways seemed similar to my own, and an eloquent, social, and very verbal little hyperactive whirlwind who reminded me of my younger brother.

It was difficult for me to be there. I felt exposed. I spent all my time with the children at the swings and on the trampoline.

The two staff members stuck together, making the sort of small talk that for me was still another language. I knew the meanings of the words they used. I could even make meaning of many of their sentences. I could have tried to make a match with some information I had linked to key words they used. But I didn't understand the significance and I was not nearly so uninhibited now that I was aware of how much I didn't understand.


Jack flitted about the yard like Peter Pan. His movements were petite, sharp, and precise, his eyes never stopping long on anything. The wind blew Jack's long wispy blond bangs as he effortlessly walked the tightrope across the top of the playground climbing frame.

It was lunchtime, and the children were brought over to the table. Jack was being drilled in the art of saying “chocolate” in order to be given some. At the age of six, Jack was just beginning to use words. (Mozart didn't speak until he was four.) A system of reward and punishment was being used to encourage Jack to speak. Sound by sound, Jack forced out the word “c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e” and was rewarded accordingly with small pieces of chocolate held out in front of him as if before a begging dog.

Jack broke away and came over to where I was. He took my hand in his little hand. I was afraid but didn't “disappear.” My hand sat stiffly in the space he had made for it. “Toilet,” he said, looking up at me with one of his flitting glances. He led me to the door that supposedly led to the toilet.

I began to shake. I didn't know where this door went to. I felt out of control being led into a room I'd not yet seen or chosen to explore.

Jack's ways were painful in their familiarity. I felt rawly exposed and my emotions climbed to a sky high pitch. My knuckles went up to my face and were held in the grip of my teeth. Emotions are against the law, snapped a mental voice from within. My hearing became more and more acute. A panic attack rapped at the gates of my conscious mind, a “tidal wave” on its way. “I'm in control,” I reassured myself, breathing rhythmically and slowly. I would stay composed and not break off and run away.

Jack stopped and suddenly looked up at me. “Don't worry, I will
come with you,” he announced with a crisp, clipped clarity. I was shocked out of my own panic by the sharp contrast between this and the boy who could barely speak minutes before. He had spoken with such clarity, directness, and control.

It seemed painfully ironic that it was Jack who was going to help me cope. Was it empathy that caused him to find the words without prompting, without chocolate, and without behavior therapy? Or had I somehow triggered a stored sentence and “the real Jack” couldn't speak nearly so easily.


The Welshman's words rang in my ears, “Are you real? It felt like you just walked through me.” For that moment it was as though we were no longer confined within ourselves. We had touched one another without touching. Perhaps I was him for that moment and he was me. Perhaps, for a moment, who we were was irrelevant.


I returned. The two workers were busy trying to feed Jody. One had the girl on her lap and was holding Jody's arms down in an attempt to stop her from tapping herself and rocking. The other worker aimed a spoon at Jody's face. Somewhere between hit and miss she managed to get some of the strained baby food into the six-year-old's mouth. Jody turned her blue eyes sharply away from them. She held her breath, ground her teeth rhythmically, stiffened like a rock, and continued to try to tap herself with her hands held down.

“Does she have anything else to eat?” I asked. “She's got sandwiches,” said the worker, “but she can't feed herself.” “Can I help?” I asked.

I was welcome to. The staff busied themselves around the table with the other children. I sat beside Jody on the bench seat. Her Vegemite sandwiches sat untouched and wrapped in plastic a foot or so in front of her.

I began to hum gently. The tune was short, rhythmic, and hypnotic. I went over it again and again and again. Jody sat next to me staring intently into nothingness. She held her breath and rocked, tapping herself and grinding her teeth.

My humming went on and on and she stopped grinding her teeth.
I continued, repeating the tune over and over and over again. I began to tap her shoulder in rhythm with the tune, always the same: continuous and predictable. Jody stopped tapping herself.

Her hands were now free for her to use. She reached across the table, grabbed her sandwiches, tore them open, and stuffed them into her face. Jody may not have been the most elegant of eaters but at least she was independent and she could eat her own food.

The worker who had hired me was watching. She asked me about what I had done. I explained that I did what I myself would have needed. Grinding my teeth kept disturbing, unpredictable, and meaningless outside noise from coming in. Singing a repetitive tune and humming continuously did the same. The tapping gave a continuous rhythm and stopped the unpatterned movement of others from invading. I had simply replaced all these things for her so that she was freed up to do the next things down the scale of what she needed or wanted to do.


Swimming was on the agenda for the day's activities. I loved swimming, but unless it was swimming away from them, I hated swimming with other people. Generally I felt too aware of their invasiveness, their unpredictability, and their proximity. Most of the children there that day were far from intentionally invasive.

Only one staff member was required to be in the pool with the children. I volunteered. The others sat on the seats nearby.

One of the children in the swimming group was very social. He had no trouble with touch and found my avoidance amusing or perhaps noninvasive enough to be safe. He kept coming after me. He was a strong swimmer and when he caught up with me he tried to clamber all over me.

I froze, going underwater like a sinking deadweight. It wasn't long before I realized that a swimming pool is no place to “disappear.” I swam away from him. The worker who was aware of my situation told him to leave me alone. I had a category for practical touch and could cope for short periods when it was necessary for safety or instruction, but this social touching was scary. In performance, touch
is somehow numbing and devoid of self. Outside of performance, I found it sensorially and emotionally quite beyond me.

Jack ran up and down the length of the pool. He looked like he wanted to jump in but couldn't. He seemed really frustrated by not being able to win himself over. He continued to return to the edge and finally he put his feet in. Surprised at his own efforts, he seemed overwhelmed by the awareness. Fear overcame him and he ran away again.

Jody sat on the top step of the pool staring into the pattern of waves she was making on the surface. The water she flicked in front of her face moved to a constant rhythm. The pattern and its consistency were lightly musical, each curl of water falling with a dainty tinkle. The glisten of the curling water was art itself.

I thought about the cost of not existing, of “disappearing” and keeping the world in control. I reached my hand across and into the water pattern Jody was getting lost in and interrupted the pattern: war games. Sometimes you have to care enough to declare war. I was on the side of fighting to help her join “the world.”

Jody glared at me lightning fast and busied herself again, her face now even closer to the pattern, attempting to get lost. She was fighting a war to keep “the world” out.

Again and again we played these war games, until the war games themselves were as consistent and predictable as the pattern the water had made. Every time Jody glared at me, I looked calmly into her eyes and smiled as if to myself. I smiled only as I would to myself in a mirror.

I took Jody's hand and pulled her very slowly around on the step until she faced the rest of the pool. Her other hand continued to make her pattern and slowly she wound herself back to face the wall. Again and again, I pulled her slowly and silently around to face the pool. Each time I let her pull me back in the direction of the wall, too. I was determined she would be forced to experience herself as making a decision that affected what another person did.

Who was on which side got lost in the pattern until the war itself didn't matter—both sides belonged to Jody. Holding her hand I
pulled her gently outward into the pool. She pulled herself back, tapping herself wildly and looking down into the water with ever increasing intensity. I watched her experience her power to decide and to take control over her own actions and affect mine.

BOOK: Somebody Somewhere
4.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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