Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My (former) kids

When I was in high school, I had to do a certain amount of volunteer work for school. I think, as an honor's student, I needed to do something like 30 hours per semester. It was rarely a problem to reach the magic number, especially all the things I did through my church. But I wanted to do more than just the church events, and so I decided to talk with the County of Parks and Recreation and see if there were any possibilities there. 

It turned out that they had a program for autistic children ages 7-12 that met for about an hour and a half every Monday (or Tuesday) night. The idea was to give parents of autistic children a night off and, through games and crafts, work on the kids' motor skills, communication skills, and direction-following. I knew next to nothing about autism at that point, but I quickly learned a lot. I even read an autobiography of an autistic woman (Donna Williams, Nobody Nowhere: the Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic, 1994) and was thoroughly amazed at her experiences. I interviewed with two people - who were, I'm sure, a bit wary at first that a 14-year old could handle it all. But they quickly asked me to come on board. For three years, until the county eliminated the program, I went every week to help my kids.  

The kids would arrive around 6 p.m., and we'd immediately do some physical activity. We typically met at a school gym, and so they had balls and jump ropes, and we would do a lot of running/walking laps (to try to get them both active and following directions). After perhaps 30 minutes, we would then take a little break and give some snacks. Once snack time was over (usually 15-20 minutes later), we then did arts & crafts until their parents all arrived.  

As the only worker under the age of about 35, I was designated the one to catch the "runners." My favorite runner was a 10 or 11-year old girl named Mary. Mary was tall, almost as tall as me, and skinny. She couldn't have weighed more than about 70 lbs. She was nonverbal, though I'm convinced she understood more than she let on. Her favorite thing to do - anytime, anywhere - was run. We would try to sit down for snacks, and off she'd go. And I'd go after her, help her slow down, and try my best to bring her back to the table to join the others.  

Mary was just one of the kids who still have a special place in my heart. I don't remember all of their names anymore, though their faces are in my heart. One girl was very tall for her age - a good 4 or 5 inches taller than I was at the time - and decently verbal. The thing I remember most is taking her to the bathroom. She could do everything herself, but someone always had to take her. I remember that she would constantly be shaking her hands while we walked, and would talk the *entire* time. I would try so hard not to laugh while she was in the stall, because she would be telling me all sorts of things I didn't need to know. :-)  

Then there was this little red-head. I can see him, but his name is lost among a sea of students. He came my third year (the last year the program existed), and, boy did he make an entrance! Mary's sister often accompanied her to the program to give her parents a real night off. She was perhaps a year older than Mary, and a very pretty little girl. This little kid - and I do mean "little"; he was no more than 3 ft tall at the time - walked up to her and gave what we soon learned was his constant pick-up line: "You're pre--tty. Are you a Chris-tian?" (The "pretty" and "christian" were both drawn out and emphasized greatly.) The line changed every so often - "Your mommy's pretty. Is she a christian?" or "Mary's pretty. Is she a christian?" We laughed so much with this kid. His parents were, of course, mortified that their teeny 10-year old son was hitting on every female in sight. :-p  

There were others, of course. One boy who was moderately verbal; he could talk about his day, but he couldn't stand to be touched. He seemed to be in his own world through most of the day. Until we got to arts and crafts. This kid was an amazing artist. He could create the most amazing pictures, his crafts were always absolutely perfect (with no help from us), and he would sit and draw with perfect concentration until we made him leave with his parents. 

My favorite, though, and the one I loved most dearly, was a tiny big man named Artie. He was the oldest of the kids there - turning 13 or 14 by the time the program ended - and was completely nonverbal. He came up perhaps to my shoulders, and was at least twice my weight. He made two basic sounds - a siren noise when he was upset or angry or didn't want to do something, and he hummed when he was content or happy or enjoying himself. Because of his weight, he was our worst runner. Sometimes, when I was tired of running after Mary, I would slow down and walk with my arms around Artie. While we made our laps, I would talk to him the whole time. The other workers laughed that I talked to him like a regular kid. I supposed that I was too naive to treat them any differently from any other kids. I told Artie how much his parents loved him, how much I loved him, how much God loved him. Despite my coworkers' laughter, I talked to Artie every week, no matter what. After two and a half years of talking to Artie, one night something great happened. Everyone assumed that because he couldn't speak, he probably didn't understand much of what we said. So this night, he was playing somewhat dangerously on one of the posts that would hold up a volleyball net. He was walking in circles on the base, making it tilt dangerously. I yelled his name, said no, and then firmly took him by the hand and led him to the other side of the gym and gave him a ball to play with. He went straight back to the post. I said "no" again, and led him away again. He returned once again. This time I yelled his name, and he turned, looked straight at me, and gave this evil "heh heh heh" and went back to swinging. Everyone was shocked, because it was the first time he had ever shown that he understood exactly what it was that we didn't want him to do. Half laughing, half being firm, I told him no, told him he was a little stinker, and that now I was on to him, and made him leave the post a final time. I have never forgotten that little laugh.

I was watching a program tonight that included 5 autistic children (or at least autistic spectrum children), and thought, once again, about my former kids. It's been a long time now, and so those children are in their early 20s now. They'll always be in my heart. No matter how many students I have over the years, I think my heart will always be with that group of kids. I wish I had the time to work with kids like that now.

Maybe not right now, but hopefully soon I'll be able to give some of my time to those children. Remember, all children are special and deserve your best love. Some just tug at your heart strings a little more.

Here's to my kids.

No comments: