Higher Education

Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my…do you learn — C.S. Lewis

STIM 657 – Autism, a Family Diagnosis

As a part of the continuing education program of the School of Family Life, a new life long learning certificate is being introduced. The advanced course is offered in a cohort environment. In the context of adult learning and development, cohorts emulate, as closely as possible, the family situation where a group of individuals, armed with a common objective, join together to develop the knowledge, skill sets, understanding, and practical application standards of the syllabus. Throughout the course objectives the members of the cohort support each other in the process of learning, cultivating concern for, and about, each other’s development. Through the use of the cohort group, individuals can experience growth and development supported and challenged by the individual academic levels and characteristics of each member of the group. Though taught in the group setting, completion of the course depends on the accumulated success of the individual member, and not the group as a whole. Certification will, most likely, occur at the conclusion of the student’s mortal enrollment.

The course syllabus may be tested in controlled laboratory or spontaneous field environments. Group members will be required to take on differing roles during the labs and fieldwork; such alterations provide students with the opportunity to apply classroom knowledge in a clinical setting, and from a variety of perspectives. The anticipated fieldwork experiences are designed, as much as chaos can be, to strip the soul of the student of pride, enhance the principles of humility in the individual, direct the individual’s thoughts heavenward, and spiritually enrich the individual through observation and participation. Such an environment provides students with an in-depth experience that can be obtained in no other way.
My family enrolled in this course in 1996. We are not academically perfect, I’m not sure we could even give what we do a grade. Certainly we have had our share of labs and fieldwork assignments. We have studied hard, poorly at times, and ended up pulling occasional all-nighters. We’ve inadequately managed time on occasions, failed to study certain material thoroughly, tried to get by on our personalities, and yes, we’ve even failed to read directions at times. I think however, that as a family, we are doing okay.

I won’t assume to report how I am doing—if you are reading new stories I write, then I am still in therapy—but let me give you my assessment on the kids in the cohort...

One afternoon, my wife took the kids to the mall. It was summer time, Ethan was out of Extended School Year, and my wife decided taking the kids to the mall could be a reward and she could handle it; after all she had Michael and Morgan there if necessary.

Predetermined rules and guidelines were explained: there would be no buying only looking. Ethan was in agreement and so they ventured in.

We are firm believers in that age-old saying,
‘The best laid plans of mice and…SQUIRREL!’
In the world of Autism the weather can, and normally does, change quickly. Within seconds of entering the mall the environment began pressing Ethan's system to overload. The pressure continued to build as his desire to have a small ball became consuming. My wife tried all the usual diversions to diminish the surging emotions, but it was no use.

Sirens sounded, as his nuclear core melted. They escaped from the store into the mall and headed to the nearest exit. Flailing arms and legs were ducked, and avoided, as my wife patiently exited the mall to the parking lot, Ethan writhing the whole way. The only things more conspicuous then the need to find the car were the stares of passers-by as they avoided the wild scene, keeping a safe distance from the fallout. Staring, wondering, scores of people passed them by, never giving in to the human desire to ask if they could help.

In tears, my wife sat on the scorching curb, grappling with her soon-to-be-teenage son, as the late summer sun beat upon them. The older children had secured the baby, and ensured that she was cared for, as they too watched in wonder. Like a drowning man surfacing for the first time, deep gasping breaths were consumed, until reserves were enlisted. They stood. Ethan, only slightly calmer, more from loss of energy then from passion, and my wife made their way to the car. The other three followed, and eventually all were safely inside the confines of the van.

If this mall experiment wasn’t tasking enough, there was another outing a few years later. The family, minus me, was at a local department store. They had headed to the car, when on a sudden, the situation turned from average to awful; Ethan had to use the bathroom. No, he WAS using the bathroom. He announced what was to be inescapable, and in an instant stuck his hand deep into the back of his underwear to stop the event.

I’ll save you the excruciating details, but suffice it to say, that Michael, at sixteen, was suddenly thrust into graduate work in family studies. My wife, Michael and Ethan made their way back into the store. Michael and Ethan headed to the bathroom, while my wife rushed to purchase the needed supplies (underwear, shorts, wipes, therapy, Calgon, etc.) to resolve the incident.

There in the public restroom brotherly kindness knew no equal, as Michael, cleaned, wiped, cleaned some more, and changed his little brother. The soiled clothes were thrown in the bag that had seconds earlier carried the newly purchased garments into the bathroom. Finally the last remnants of the ordeal disappeared down the drain, and the two exited and headed for home.

Flash forward one more year to another location and another test. I was out of town in Tennessee, attending a conference for work. My wife and the kids were together at a department store, buying groceries and other sundry items. Items were being scanned, their prices flashing on the small screen following that familiar beep; the cost of each new item building upon the previous sum. In similar fashion, but clearly buried from view, Ethan’s emotions were also building. Somewhere deep inside, at a point invisible to all around, Ethan’s emotions were accruing at an alarming rate.

Emotional events of the day, some identified, others eternally anonymous, had been mounting. The overwhelming input of those events built, one event after another, and led to an overload on his nervous system. Like tectonic plates, the pressures loomed, just under the surface, until something, some ‘last straw’ sent them over the edge.

With car keys in hand, Michael and Morgan carried Ethan from the store kicking and screaming, as my wife paid for the groceries. Once outside, Morgan helped in getting the car open, as Michael maneuvered Ethan inside.

Before he could get the seat belt on and the door closed, Michael took one for the team.  The kick to his side clearly hurt, no question about it. It landed squarely, stealing his breath. Michael’s eyes brimmed with tears, just as onlookers approached to investigate. A member of the ward, spotted them, and made his way over to help. With no available solution in sight the ward member continued on his way as the meltdown raged on in full force. My wife arrived, loaded the groceries, and began the tremulous drive home.

A long distance phone call was placed while en route. I knew instantly what was happening as I answered the phone. The screaming and ugly words nearly drowned out my wife’s voice as she explained the predicament. She handed Ethan her phone and I did my best to sooth his nerves as they drove home. Eventually I was able to get him to respond to my requests. As I had asked, he handed the phone to Morgan, who, following my instructions, began deep pressure therapy. I could hear in the background as she requested hugs from him, ‘Can I have a hug…? No, I need a real hug… Can I have a real hug…?’

Eventually the overwhelming pressure on his nervous system subsided, the hugs allowing his emotions an escape route, and he calmed down. They drove into the garage, their nerves rattled, characters aged with the payment of an emotional toll. Only a slight red mark on Michael's side, and three pair of bloodshot eyes evidenced the ordeal. 
Through it all, the kids have suffered occasional bumps and bruises from the required fieldwork. But every now and again they get little reminders that seem to be a 'Balm of Gilead' for all the wear and tear; tender mercies like the one Morgan posted about on Facebook:
Loves having a 14 year old brother that still holds my hand :)

Popular Posts