Authors: Brynn Stein
Stevie flinched and threw his hands over his ears. I closed in quickly, expecting to have to talk him down from another incident, but he sat with his hands on his ears and looked right at me.
“Loud noise, Bear.”
“Yeah, pretty loud.” I answered. “Not as bad as all the hammers and saws, though. And it’s over now, so you can put your hands down, buddy.”
He did, but then said, “Blocks can be walls.”
“Yeah, they can.” I wasn’t sure where he was going with this.
“Walls keep the noise out.”
“Yeah, when they’re built to stay up, like the wall the men downstairs are building. Then, yeah, it can keep the noise out. Like the noise of the machines doesn’t sound as loud, now that the wall is going up.”
“More blocks, less noise?”
Oh. I saw what he meant now. “Yeah, big guy. If you build a really good wall, you can keep the noise out.”
“How do you build a wall that will stay up?”
I smiled. He might be onto something here. My focus had been on having him gain control of the volume of the noises in his head, but all the research I’d read talked about having shields against the emotions or thoughts of others. Shields would be more like a wall. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t thought of it like that. So we spent the next ten or fifteen minutes building block walls. I showed Stevie how to stagger the blocks so the whole structure would stay up a little longer.
Ryan scooted over to do the same thing. He didn’t quite understand the idea behind the staggering, so I showed him directly several times. Then the coolest thing happened. Stevie demonstrated how to do it, and they built their walls side by side, with Stevie helping Ryan when need be. They managed to make the walls quite high.
Then Ryan knocked his down.
Stevie actually laughed.
I had thought we were onto something with building a wall as a metaphor for building a mental shield. We seemed to have gotten sidetracked with building block walls with Ryan, though. But Stevie had laughed… out loud!
. The staff had never seen him play the whole time he had been at the center. Even since I had arrived, he hadn’t actually played. He had been happier and had begun to interact with staff, but this was the first time he voluntarily interacted with another child.
This was a breakthrough in its own right. We’d get back to the mental shield idea later.
day Chuck showed his charming personality again.
One of the kids on the hall, Jacob, had two fathers. They were one of the only families who actually seemed interested in their kid. Many of the children here were checked in and saw little of their family after that, but Jacob’s dads visited every weekend.
That didn’t seem to matter to Chuck.
“Damned queers,” he mumbled loud enough for us to hear but not for them to. I was sure he’d just say we misunderstood him if we turned him in for hate speech. “That’s what’s wrong with the stupid kid. If he just had normal parents, he wouldn’t have all the behavior problems.”
“Yeah,” Drew put in his two cents, “the fact that he has autism has
to do with his problems controlling his behavior.”
take up for them,” Chuck sneered. “Birds of a feather….”
Dottie came through that section of the hall. “Don’t you have something to do, Chuck?”
He glared at her, but at least he didn’t say anything else. For their part, Jacob’s dads just ignored the whole thing. They had come to see Jacob, and nothing was going to interfere with that. Not even a bigot.
I had no idea if Chuck was correct about Drew’s sexual orientation. It would be nice if he was gay. I had always known I was more attracted to men than to women, and boy, was I attracted to Drew. Of course, even if he
gay, that didn’t mean he wanted anything more from me than friendship. But I decided friendship was about all I had time for right now anyway, so I put it out of my mind and went about my business.
next several weeks, we revisited the idea of building a wall to keep the noise out. Stevie had turned back to drawing, creating lovely, ornate walls on paper, but that was as far as it went. Then I tried to direct his drawing. I’d never done that before. I had always just let him draw what he wanted. On rare occasions people had asked him to draw something specific, but they didn’t persist when he didn’t do it.
But I attempted just that this time.
“Hey, Steve.” I sat down beside him as he was drawing yet another wall. “Could you draw something I described to you?”
He looked up at me and met my gaze, but that was his only response.
“How about”—I scooted closer to him—“you draw a crowd of people over here?” I indicated one side of the paper. “And you over here.” I had forgotten that Dottie had said he wouldn’t draw other people.
“You and me?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure if that was going to work with what I had planned. I didn’t know if he’d be able to block everyone else out but leave me in. But he was interested in going along with my request, so I agreed to it.
“Sure, big guy.” I smiled. “You can put me on this side too.”
So he did.
He drew remarkably detailed people shapes on one side of the paper and him and me on the other. No one had faces, not even the child figure on the other edge of the paper. My face, however, was rendered in great detail.
“Okay, buddy.” I started when he had finished drawing his last person. “That many people. They’re probably noisy, right?” I tapped my head. “Up here?”
Stevie just nodded.
“Okay, how about we put a wall between them and us.”
He examined my face for a minute, probably to figure out what I was talking about.
“Start drawing one of your beautiful walls right here.” I pointed to the empty space between the two groups of people on his paper.
“Put up a wall to keep out the noise?” he asked, still studying me. “Like the one downstairs?”
“Yeah, big guy.” I was thrilled that he was following my idea. “That’s exactly what I mean.”
“More wall, less noise?”
“Yep,” I agreed.
He started drawing the wall. When it was up past the heads of the crowd of people, he said, “That would be quieter, right?”
“I would think so, yeah.”
“Higher would be better?”
So he continued building it higher and higher until it reached the top of the page.
“All quiet?” he asked.
“It would be quieter with a wall between you and everyone else, don’t you agree?”
He looked at his drawing for the longest time. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking about, but at least he was considering the question. We might have just taken the first step toward controlling his “gift.”
I wasn’t sure whether I should push him to internalize it or just let the concept soak in for a while.
Stevie took the whole thing a step further.
“Too bad I can’t build walls.” He shook his head.
I made sure he was looking at me and answered. “But I think you can, Steve.” He was interested, so I continued. “All those voices in your head? Imagine them as your drawing of all these people—” I touched the crowd of people on his paper. “—and draw a wall. In your head. Draw a wall or build it with blocks and keep all those voices out.”
“Sure, big guy, just like in your drawing. If you want me on your side of the wall, draw it that way… in your mind.”
“Draw in my mind?”
He wasn’t incredulous, just wondering about it.
“I never drew in my mind before.”
“I know. It’ll take some practice, huh?”
“I don’t mind practice.”
I had to chuckle. “That’s great, Steve.”
But the session seemed to be over for now. He picked up his paper and pencil and went to his room. I followed, just to be sure he didn’t need me, but he had sat down in the corner and started to draw again. I figured I should probably give him his space for now, so I went back out to the living room.
During the next weeks, Stevie drew picture after picture with various people shapes outside the wall, and with him and me inside. He didn’t seem to be internalizing yet, and he wasn’t always obviously connecting it with being able to build a wall in his mind, but it was a start. Come to think of it, I wasn’t really sure how I’d know if he
internalizing it. A couple of times he started getting upset, but when I told him to build the wall in his mind, he started to draw. I don’t know if he actually erected a shield in his mind too or if the drawing itself calmed him down. I didn’t guess it mattered, as long as he had a way to calm himself.
benefit of all this was that Stevie found he quite enjoyed playing with blocks, even when it had nothing to do with controlling his empathy. He started to sit on the floor with Ryan and play with blocks at the same time as the younger boy. At first they were just playing near each other. Soon enough, though, Stevie started to reach out. He was aware that Ryan knew his colors, so he’d ask Ryan if he wanted a blue block or a red one. Ryan didn’t answer. He wasn’t usually very communicative, but as time went on, Ryan started to answer Stevie’s questions, stating his preference for the blue one over the red one, et cetera. That developed into even more communication when Ryan asked for a specific color before Stevie could prompt it. Stevie asked Ryan to give
a certain color block for his tower, and Ryan almost always complied. Blue seemed to be Ryan’s favorite color, and he wouldn’t hand over the last blue block no matter how sweetly Stevie asked. Finally Stevie started teasing Ryan. The younger boy asked for a blue block, and Stevie handed him a yellow one. The first time that happened, Ryan just put it down and picked up a blue block for himself, but the more Stevie did it, the more Ryan figured out he was playing a different game. Eventually, Ryan started teasing too and would hand Stevie the wrong color and laugh hysterically.
Everyone was astonished at the change in both Stevie and Ryan. No one had seen either boy interact this well with another child, let alone tease each other. Dottie decided to record their next play session. We often taped the kids to show baseline performance of certain behaviors as well as any changes. These were then stored on DVDs and kept in a secure place to protect the confidentiality of the children, but they were very helpful to show other staff members what to expect or what interventions worked.
So one evening during free play on the hall, Stevie and Ryan were doing their usual comedy routine with the blocks and Dottie was capturing it all on video. Ryan asked for a yellow block, and Stevie told him he had no more yellow ones—even though at least ten lay right in front of him. Ryan picked up a yellow one and said, “Yellow.” Stevie tried to convince him the block was blue instead. Ryan then picked up a red one and said, “No, this blue,” then laughed hysterically. Stevie tossed a red one to Ryan and said, “Yellow,” only to have Ryan toss it back and say, “Blue.”
Both boys were laughing hysterically, and Dottie lamented that all this video was going to prove was that neither boy knew his colors. Ryan had abandoned the blocks altogether and was literally rolling around on the floor, laughing. Stevie was laughing too and decided to join his friend and roll around as well. But, as luck would have it, Ryan landed on a pile of blocks, which must have dug into his back. He screamed as if he had been stabbed.
Several staff members were bringing kids down the hallway at the same time, so the staff came over to see if they could help, obviously worried, but the kids got upset by the screaming. The more people came in the room, the more Stevie scrunched up in a ball until he finally screamed too. He jumped up and began to kick the blocks and jumped around slapping at himself, still screaming, until finally he started to claw at his arms and face. Drew came in and rescued a befuddled Ryan, who had stopped crying and couldn’t understand what had suddenly happened to his friend to cause such a change.
Stevie was tearing at his clothes, clawing at his skin and screaming. By the time I got to him, he had completely lost any control he might have had and had taken his shirt off. Dottie, knowing she couldn’t do anything else to help, continued taping, hoping to catch a successful intervention to teach other staff members how to help Stevie in the future.
“Hey, big guy,” I said calmly and reached out toward him, but didn’t intend to actually touch him.
Stevie screamed, “
,” and backed away from me. “No
. No more touch. It hurts.”
As I drew a little closer, he scrambled away and barricaded himself behind the large table near the wall. Any attempt to talk him out earned another terrified scream as he continued to pace behind the table, smack at his arms, and dig at his chest.
I eased closer so I could talk him into building his wall, but he screamed again, “Don’t touch me. Leave me alone! No more!”
“Okay, big guy. No more touch. I know you can’t handle any more touch right now.” I sat down where I was so he knew I wasn’t going to touch him, but I asked, “Can you draw a wall in your mind, Steve?” When he shook his head furiously, I asked, “Can you
a wall? Get the blocks in your mind and stack them up. Build a wall so you don’t hear the noise.”
“No blocks, Bear,” he screamed. “I can’t find the blocks. I can’t build the wall.” He got more and more frantic as he apparently tried to build a mental shield but failed. I wished he could draw a wall right then, or build with real blocks but I knew he was way too upset for that.
.” He screamed again and sank to the floor behind the table. Man, this one was bad. In the last several weeks, we had handled some crisis periods where he couldn’t calm down. He couldn’t find the blocks in his mind and couldn’t draw the wall, but none of them had lasted this long. In those other instances, we had eventually cleared the room and Stevie had calmed down once the stimuli were gone.