Authors: Brynn Stein
“Probably helped lessen the emotional input a little. Maybe.”
She nodded. “All the teaching methods we use with the other kids? They didn’t work with Stevie. We couldn’t desensitize him to touch or shape a gaze response. We couldn’t even get him to use a communication board. He didn’t like us that close, and we usually started out with physical prompting to teach the kids what the pictures mean. Hand over hand, we’d physically help them touch a picture of juice, for example, and then give them juice until they got the idea that the picture meant the thing. Stevie wouldn’t tolerate the touch.”
“So he—what? Just sat around?”
She chuckled. “I guess I am making it sound that way, aren’t I?” She shook her head. “No. He’d follow us anywhere we asked him to go, usually. He’d sit in the back of his class and draw what the teacher was saying, so we knew some information was getting through. We asked him to draw specific things and use that for communication. Like draw a glass of juice and we’d give him juice. He never seemed to pair it up, and he’d have a meltdown if someone stood too close while he drew, so that turned out not to be a way we could use.”
She looked at the TV and continued her story. “So, when he spontaneously sought someone out like that, let alone taking my hand and asking for a specific action… we kind of indulged him if we could without detriment to the other children. The child who was watching TV had often watched Stevie’s TV shows with him, so I knew he wouldn’t mind it being on that instead, and Kenny hadn’t asked for the Discovery show or had chosen it in any way. It was just the show that happened to be on. So I changed the channel for Stevie, and Kenny seemed fine with it.”
The conversation was interrupted by another scream.
When I burst into Stevie’s bedroom, I asked. “Did you go to the forest again?”
“No.” He shook his head. “But you weren’t there.”
“Wasn’t in the forest? You said you didn’t—”
“No. Weren’t here when I woke up.”
“Was that a dream, Steve? Or did you really wake up and I wasn’t in the room?”
“Dream. I woke up in the morning, and you weren’t here. You were never here. This was the dream.”
I held him close. “I guess it’s going to take some getting used to, for both of us, but I’m right here, bud. And if you really wake up and I’m not in your room, you don’t have to scream. Just call me. I’m just down the hall, in the living room.”
“I screamed in my dream.”
“Okay, bud. Yeah, I know you did this time.”
“I need you here. The fire and tingles aren’t as bad when you’re here.”
“Do you need me
here, though? Like, in the room? Or will the living room be okay?”
“We can try the living room.”
I kissed his hair and laid him back down. “Okay, bud. I’m not leaving the hall, okay?”
“Okay.” And he closed his eyes.
I noticed Dottie had followed me again, so she walked with me back to the living room.
“Hard not to fall in love with the little imp, isn’t it?”
I just smiled and nodded.
“So, Stevie stories,” I prodded.
“Oh, yeah. There was this one time…”
We talked for what seemed like hours. Stevie called to me twice more and came out to get me once. Dottie finally found one of the old recliners that every institution seemed to have. The kind that, I swear, was purposely made by chiropractors and orthopedic surgeons just to drum up business. The chair was on wheels, so she easily moved it into Stevie’s room, and I resigned myself to sleep in the wretched thing for the night.
to find that it was almost noon. I had such a crick in my neck, I could hardly move it. The rest of my joints didn’t like me much either.
Stevie was still asleep, but starting to stir. He’d had a much better night once I stayed in the room with him. While he was still asleep, I had thought I’d go look for someplace to freshen up a little, maybe go to the car to get a change of clothes, but I didn’t want to go that far until I could tell him where I was going.
“Hey,” a man about my age said when he almost ran into me. “I’m Gary. Dottie said to let you two sleep.”
I reached out to shake his hand. “I’m glad. We had a pretty rough night.”
“From what I hear, not nearly as rough as Stevie’s been having lately. Dottie said he was talking? What does that even sound like?”
I smiled. I guess I’d have to get used to that reaction. From their perspective, it would look almost magical. A child who hadn’t talked in six years suddenly did. No magic to it, of course, but it would take a while to convince everyone of that.
“So we just let you sleep.” Gary was still talking. “Dottie’s the sweetest person on the planet but you don’t want to see her in mama bear mode, so we don’t risk her wrath.”
Gary was the only staff on the hall. Everyone else was scattered throughout the center, mostly in the school section. They always left one person on the hall, even when kids weren’t there, to do paperwork and generally be easy to find if they were needed. Like Gary said, “There’s never a dull moment around here.”
By the time I finished freshening up and slipped back into Stevie’s room, he was just opening his eyes. He smiled really big when he saw me, and he flew into my arms. I hugged him tight for a long while.
“See? Still here.”
“Thank you, Bear.” He looked me straight in the eye with such gratitude it filled my heart.
“Told you I would be.” I ruffled his hair. “Now let’s get ready for school. It’s already lunchtime. We missed a lot of classes.”
He smiled. Typical kid. “I don’t mind.”
I pushed his shoulders back a little so that he took a step back, and then I stood up. “Yeah, well, we can’t miss any more.”
He laughed, went to his dresser and pulled out his clothes for the day, then spontaneously went to the restroom and brushed his teeth and washed his face.
I expected him to be self-sufficient from knowing him in the forest. I wasn’t disappointed. For the most part, he could do everything by himself. Once he finished his morning ablutions, Gary told me how to find the cafeteria. Stevie agreed that lunch would be an
idea. We were both famished, so off we went in search of some food.
turned out, news of Stevie’s “miraculous recovery” had already spread throughout the center. Hearing about it, however, and actually seeing it were two extremely different things.
We came in on the tail end of lunch, so there weren’t many people left. On our way through the halls, Stevie had huddled close to me or clung to me whenever we passed anyone, so I was glad I could witness his first meal with me without the added problem of a crowd.
The lady behind the counter introduced herself as Mabel and commented on how much better Stevie looked than he had in the last several months. Lunch that day was a simple affair of sandwiches and soup. Grilled cheese sandwiches were still available, but the peanut butter ones seemed to have been a hit because the tray with that label was empty. While I was talking to Mabel, Stevie picked up his own tray and silverware. He chose a bowl of chicken soup rather than tomato, but he didn’t take a sandwich. He seemed to be looking for something else. I interrupted my conversation to ask him if he wanted a sandwich.
“Peanut butter,” he said matter-of-factly.
Mabel was shocked. I was becoming used to the goldfish look, though. So far everyone had adopted it the first time they heard Stevie speak. After shaking herself out of her shock, she assured Stevie she would be right back with his favorite kind of sandwich. I heard her exclaim softly to the other staff, “Stevie
for a sandwich…
!” I heard various responses from the other ladies, but most of them rushed forward to hear for themselves. However, the more people who crowded into the serving-line section of the cafeteria, the closer Stevie stood to me, until he was finally hanging on for dear life. I knew we weren’t going to hear anything else from him for a while. Since the way Stevie had handled crowds in the past was to drop to the floor and scream, holding his ears or ripping at his skin, the staff seemed impressed that he just stood close to me. Even without the long-sought-after prize of hearing Stevie talk, they still considered this a vast improvement.
After lunch, we went to Stevie’s afternoon classroom and slipped quietly into the back. Several children huddled with the teacher at the front of the room, so I tried to convince Stevie to join them, but he held on to me and refused to go any farther, even if I went with him. He slipped into a chair at the back of the room and took a pad of paper and crayons off a nearby shelf. Obviously this was where he normally sat, so I settled into a chair beside him and watched the teacher. She was holding up pictures of different types of community helpers. A doctor, a nurse, and an ambulance attendant already hung on the bulletin board to her right, and there was room on the board for several more pictures. She was currently talking about a firefighter. I was quite impressed when I figured out that she had different goals for the various children and was using this one activity to work on each of them.
Most of the kids in the center were developmentally and academically delayed, so they didn’t work on a “normal” grade-level curriculum. The teachers here focused more on a functional curriculum. Since the students seemed to have trouble learning, the staff wanted everything they did learn to be of value to them in their day-to-day life.
My attention wandered to a little girl of about ten who was sitting with a young woman close to my age—obviously a staff member—who was trying to help the girl stay focused, calling her by name, Lydia, over and over in a soothing voice. Lydia was becoming more and more agitated about something in the environment, and the lady’s efforts to help Lydia maintain control got increasingly desperate until she finally lost the battle and Lydia started screaming and striking out.
The domino effect was phenomenal. Several of the other children became agitated at the commotion, and Stevie dropped to the floor, put his hands on his ears, and screamed. I don’t know how the teacher did it, while standing in front of the room, but she managed to stay utterly calm in the face of all this and left the two screaming children to their respective aides while she calmed the children in the group.
The woman with Lydia finally convinced her to stand and exit the room. We could hear her screams become increasingly muffled as she and her aide moved down the hall to a nearby “calm room”—not so much a time-out room, because the child was never left alone, but more of a regroup room where the environment was more controlled and the child, with a staff member’s help, could regain their composure.
Meanwhile Stevie was still in complete agony. None of my research prepared me for how to help him. His recovery, if it could be called that, had seemed so instantaneous when I’d first entered his room that I honestly thought that now I was here, he’d just “snap out of it” and be like he was in the forest. I was finding that was not going to be the case. Stevie had improved immensely, but this wasn’t going to be smooth sailing. But really, if I had to choose one environment in the world where I wouldn’t want to put a sensitive empath, it would be in an institutional setting with children who struggled to control their emotions. I had no clue how to help.
So, I did what I often do—what I do best, in fact. I made it up as I went along.
Stevie’s hands were still firmly over his ears. He had stopped screaming and was now rocking, eyes closed in pain. I reached over gently and touched him on the arm. No response. I then tapped him lightly on the chin to get him to look at me. He finally opened his eyes. I put my hands over my ears just like he had his, with the same pressure, the same intensity. He watched, but didn’t really know what to do with that. I then released a little of the pressure in my hands, enough that he could see the change. He watched, but still no change. I tipped my chin toward him to indicate that he should do the same. I was talking to him quietly also, but wasn’t sure he could pay attention to any more auditory input, since he was probably still combatting the noise in his head. Finally he released a little pressure in his own hands. I loosened mine a little more, and he followed suit, ceasing his rocking when he noticed the noise—on the outside at least—was gone. I finally removed my hands altogether and slowly moved them to my lap. He did the same, very slowly, very deliberately. After a few more moments, when he had assured himself that the noise, either in the room or in his head, wasn’t coming back, he lifted himself to his chair and began drawing again.
I didn’t know if the actions themselves helped or if giving him something else to concentrate on did. It might have even been that with me so close he could pick up on my calm, positive emotions, more than everything else, and the actions themselves hadn’t meant a thing. But whatever it was, something seemed to work, so I counted it a win.
I noticed the teacher was surprised that Stevie had come out of what the staff always called a “sensitive period” so quickly. But, being the professional she was, she didn’t miss a beat with her instruction. As she finished talking about each community helper, she had been handing the cutout to a student to put on the bulletin board. She was currently talking about a teacher. Stevie was busy drawing a picture of the bulletin board and started adding the teacher as soon as the student put it up. Finally the classroom teacher picked up a cutout of a police officer.
“Hey, Stevie, look.” I directed his attention toward the front of the room. “It’s a police officer.”
He looked up from his drawing and was actually paying attention to the teacher as she talked about everything a police officer did for the community and told the kids they could go to an officer if they were lost. She segued into asking them their names and where they lived, then had them role-play being lost and asking the police officer for help. Stevie was watching all of this attentively.