Authors: Brynn Stein
The fire alarm had gone off due to a minor fire in the kitchen, two floors below and at the opposite end of the building. Someone had spilled hot grease on the gas stove, causing the flame to jump to a nearby dish towel. They had it contained rapidly; someone had just overreacted and pulled the alarm. But the fire trucks responded according to protocol, sirens blaring, and were now parked in the lot with their lights still flashing. This worked all the kids up again. Stevie wouldn’t open his eyes and had put his hands back over his ears. He would scream anytime I loosened the hug, so I held on tight. I had no idea what else to do. At least he wasn’t still causing himself bodily injury.
was thinking of doing bodily injury… to Chuck.
never before attempted to get up two flights of stairs with a ten-year-old all but surgically attached to my side. I decided I never wanted to try it again; it wasn’t fun. Stevie had refused to get in the elevator. I was striving to talk him into it when Chuck made a move toward him, and I suggested Stevie and I take the stairs. Stevie was fine with that but wouldn’t let go of me. He did at least let me loosen my hold on him long enough to open doors or catch a stair rail when we inevitably stumbled.
The next day I did something that would start the descent into the worst time of my life, and of Stevie’s life. I talked to the director about asking Chuck to leave Stevie to me. Before she would consent, I had to describe what had happened. She put an official reprimand in his file, saying she would not tolerate blatant manhandling of her children, nor would she allow staff members to use profanity when addressing them. I hadn’t set out to have him officially reprimanded; I just wanted him to stay away from Stevie so I could deal with Stevie in a systematic way without having Chuck as a wild card.
Counting this event, Chuck was just one reprimand away from being fired. Now, since the rule was “five reprimands gained instant termination,” I couldn’t possibly be the only one who had made a complaint. Did
see it that way? Of course not. He singled me out and threatened to “beat the shit out of me” if I got him in any more trouble. Never being one to hold my tongue when I felt I was in the right, I told him if he’d stop doing things to get scolded for, I wouldn’t be able to get him reprimanded. So much for ever getting along with Chuck.
Fortunately I seemed to be making friends with just about anyone else, especially Dottie and Drew. They also happened to be the only other people whom Stevie had ever sought out before I came. He could communicate with others now, but he still preferred them. I asked Stevie about it once, and he told me their minds felt good. I interpreted that as meaning they didn’t cause him as much mental and emotional turmoil as other people did. They were calm, steady, easygoing individuals, and that was the kind of person Stevie needed most.
Dottie was a mothering influence. And Drew? He was something else. He was patience personified with the kids and even with Chuck, but he also had an air of… well, I wasn’t sure how to describe it, even to myself, but it was alluring. I found myself wanting to spend all the time possible with him. I was always at the center, so I didn’t have any free time to spend with anyone, but we started gravitating toward each other when we were at work.
We sat together at meals and in the TV room, even outside or in the playroom when available. Not everyone was okay with that.
“Awww,” Chuck said one evening in a mocking voice. “Why, Drew, you found another queer boy.”
Drew didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, Chucky baby, don’t worry. You know I only have eyes for you.”
I thought Chuck was going to explode. Drew just chuckled and made kissy faces at him. Chuck finally went away, which of course was Drew’s main objective.
I was laughing so hard I was having trouble catching my breath.
Drew and I had the same sense of humor, but Drew was much more outspoken and had more of a sarcastic wit about him than I did. We had the same work ethic and the same sense of responsibility for the children. Drew tended to be protective of not only the kids but those he considered friends as well. We had instantly hit it off, and now it was as if we had known each other all our lives.
Drew had grown up in Lynneville, but he’d drifted around jobwise for a while, not really knowing what he wanted to do. He said he didn’t have the grades to go to college. I didn’t know why he wouldn’t, though—he was as smart as they came. Drew could have done anything he wanted in college. But he told me he was already doing something he loved.
He had a cousin who was autistic and they had gone to the same school. The public’s acceptance of autistic kids was not very good back when Drew and his cousin were kids. More and more programs had started around that time, but having a good school program and being treated well by the general population were two entirely different things.
Apparently, Drew’s Aunt Katherine had been told all along to put Gavin in an institution, but she tried to keep him at home as long as she could. Without support, though, he ended up in one anyway. The public’s knowledge of autism had come a long way since then, but Drew said that when this job became available, he’d thought of Gavin. Today the push was more toward keeping the autistic child in the home, but residential facilities were still around, and Drew said he thought he could help make this one great.
That might have sounded conceited, coming from anyone else, but Drew didn’t mean it that way. He was just confident in his abilities to get along with these kids, to love them just the way they were, and to be patient with their foibles. I guessed that was all any of us could ask for. And he really was great with the kids.
Dottie and Drew were the only ones who seemed to totally buy into my theory of Stevie being an empath. They had always been calm and patient with him, but now they made an effort to quiet their minds and project that calm toward him. No one was sure it actually worked that way, but Stevie seemed to appreciate the effort. He said they made him warm when they were around and he liked that.
“They don’t tingle like everyone else,” he said.
I wasn’t sure if that was because they were genuinely calm people by nature—though Drew could be fiercely protective when needed—or if Stevie could feel their sincere love for him. Maybe that old saying about love being “warm and fuzzy” was literally correct. Well, maybe not the fuzzy part. I’d have to remember to ask Stevie about that.
in the living room at the center, Drew and I started talking about my favorite subject, Stevie.
“So I researched the heck out it. Articles I found on empaths yielded wildly varied information.” I was warming to my topic and Drew just let me talk. “Most sounded nothing like Stevie’s case, but I did manage to find three that were a little similar. Those three mentioned feeling something physical when in highly emotional environments. One even used the word ‘tingles,’ just like Stevie did.”
“Wow. Only one?” Drew asked.
“For that actual word, yes. Fortunately that was the one of the three I could track down. She had passed away some years ago, but I met with her brother. I told him about Stevie, and he agreed it sounded very much like Lilly’s situation.”
“So others are out there, like Stevie.”
“Well, a few anyway. But what has me worried is that Rusty said Lilly had to live practically like a hermit. She couldn’t go around many people at all. She was most comfortable near Rusty or their mother, or just by herself. She wrote a book on her life, but she never got out and actually lived much. Every day was just a struggle to survive. I want better than that for Stevie.”
“Well, maybe you got to him in time and you will be able to help.”
“Rusty and their mom were with Lilly her whole life, and it didn’t seem to help.”
“Maybe there’s something different about your relationship with Stevie,” Drew offered. “In fact, I’d be willing to bet there is. I’ve seen him with you. He comes to life. Hang in there. It’ll all come together. You are making a difference.”
“Well, Stevie’s case is a little different anyway. Lilly couldn’t call anyone into her mindscape, though she mentioned in the book that she did escape to one. Rusty thought I was a little nuts when I mentioned I met Steve in a mental forest.”
Drew smiled. “Well, it does sound a little far-fetched.” When I frowned, he held his hands up as if surrendering. “Hey, I totally believe it. But you have to admit to the uninitiated it would seem a little strange.”
I smiled and nodded. “Yep, pretty much everything about the last six years of my life has been strange.”
“Hey”—he slapped me on the shoulder as he stood up—“better than boring.” Then he went to check on the kids.
fire drill incident taught me anything, it was that I
to find a way for Stevie to control his empathy. I believed there was a way. Lilly had discovered a way to be at least partially functional, so we just had to invent one for Stevie.
I was racking my brain yet again when I passed a large poster in the front foyer of the center. We were a state-funded facility and also asked for a small contribution from the parents, but we occasionally tried to raise funds from the local population for something special. Some of the play equipment was becoming pretty dated, and we could use replacements. We were also hoping to make enough to buy an extra piece of equipment or two, as well as remulch the whole play area. Toward that end, someone had drawn a large thermometer on the poster board, with the monetary goal at the top and lines along the side denoting how much we had already made.
I couldn’t wait to get back on the hall to Stevie. I sat him down with a dry-erase board and an assortment of items. At the top of the board, I drew a crude representation of people shouting and a thermometer separated into ten sections. Then I picked up a small radio, turned it off, and put it by his ear, indicating the empty thermometer. He had no idea what I was getting at, but he was watching and listening to me.
“This is what the thermometer looks like when there’s no sound in your head.”
I then turned it on just a little, barely any sound at all, and colored in one section. He looked like he knew this was important but didn’t really understand it yet.
“If the noise up there”—I tapped his forehead—“is a little louder, you can tell me like this.”
I turned the radio up a little more, and colored in another section. I saw a glint in his eye, and he almost smiled. Up went the sound a little more, and before I could get near the board, he picked up a marker and colored in another section. Man, this kid was so smart.
“Great, big guy. That’s right. The louder the radio, the more sections are colored in.”
Stevie reached out, turned the radio up a little more, and colored in another section. He had the idea now. He turned it up some more and colored another section—again and again—until all ten sections were colored. I had purposefully chosen a radio that wouldn’t get very loud even turned all the way up. I wanted to help Stevie, not cause another possible crisis if the kids reacted badly to the loud noise, because then Stevie would react badly to their emotions.
I then turned it down a little and erased a section. Can’t get anything past this guy. He turned it down some more and started erasing sections one at a time. Turn, erase, turn, erase. This was a long way from actually having a way for Stevie to control his senses, but at least we had a visual representation of sound becoming louder and softer.
We were on our way. We still needed a way for him to internalize this concept, and I wanted him to understand that he could turn the voices in his head up and down instead of the radio. So we weren’t finished by any means—but we were
on our way.
a lot of thermometers for the next several days.
Beautifully detailed pictures of thermometers with varying levels of red in the middle. I asked him to make a smaller one that he’d be able to carry with him. I laminated it and took that and a dry-erase marker everywhere we went. Stevie liked turning things up and down and coloring in sections, but that was as far as it went. We were making no further progress with internalizing the whole thing or using it to manipulate his own empathy.
When a breakthrough finally came, it was Stevie who made it.
The center had started building a new wing with grant money it had received from the government, so we heard lots of jackhammering, sawing, drilling, and other noises going on when we passed that section. Stevie struggled with me when I asked him to go past that. I didn’t know if just the physical sound was the problem or if the addition of the workmen’s thoughts and emotions to the already crowded and noisy place that was Stevie’s mind was the last straw. Whatever the reason, he would have a meltdown every time we were anywhere near that section of the school.
When they actually started erecting a wall, I didn’t have to fight Stevie so hard to get him past it.
“I like the wall,” he told me one day. “I can’t hear the noise as much.”
I didn’t think anything about it. I was just thankful something had made it possible for Stevie to pass without incident.
while Stevie was sitting at the table on the hall, drawing picture after picture, another child, Ryan, sat on the floor nearby, playing with blocks. Ryan was a nine-year-old who was as obsessed with building block walls as Stevie was with drawing everything he saw. Ryan was building a magnificent (if precarious) wall about ten blocks wide by eight or nine high. But they weren’t staggered. It more closely resembled ten block towers side by side. As usually happened, the thing fell down, making a
noise, which, in my opinion, was what Ryan liked even better than building.