My son, Nolan, has Autism and is nonverbal. He’s had his struggles along the way, but he’s also worked very hard to become the young man of whom I’m very proud. My wife, Cindy, and I know it’s due in large part to all the incredible people he’s had the privilege of crossing paths with over the years.
It takes a village, all right. Nolan has worked with some top-notch teachers and paraprofessionals – especially at the high school he attends – and the results are noticeable. He’s also been fortunate to work with the same music therapist for the past eight years, and she gets all the credit for him becoming a true success story at the studio that employs her.
There’s another group of people that, after nearly 2½ years of doing this blog, I need to recognize: the young women and men who were employed by the Autism therapy program whose services our family utilized for nearly seven years. I hope this post somehow finds its way to all of them in the coming days. I hope they take a moment to remember the all-too-brief time – very rarely more than one year – they spent with my son and give themselves credit for helping shape his future. Want to look in the mirror, point at your reflection and say, “You’re pretty awesome?” I encourage it wholeheartedly.
Cindy and I welcomed these folks into our home to work with Nolan from the spring of 2010 through early 2017. I used to be able to rattle off the name of every therapist who served on the team with the same ease I can name the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers’ starting lineup, but I unfortunately no longer can. Most of them were college students, of which several were juniors or seniors who were enrolled in the recreational therapy program at one of the local universities.
I don’t know how much the job paid, but I’m sure they could have earned more waiting tables or schlepping drinks. On any given day Nolan might be cooperative one moment and erupt the next. They would get their hair pulled, and on occasion they might end up with a bruise or two. For all I know, some of them might have wanted to sprint out the door screaming after Nolan had had yet another toileting accident and they were cleaning urine off the floor.
A couple of the therapists didn’t last long, but most of them stayed with us through the good, the bad, and the ugly. They were patient with my son. They worked through challenging situations with a pleasant yet firm demeanor that told Nolan, “I know you’re not thrilled with me right now, but first we’re going to finish what we need to and then we’ll have some fun.” Nolan tested every therapist, and he learned that more often than not that, yes, he was going to do what he was being asked – even if he sometimes did so grudgingly.
The really good therapists, meaning most of them, took the time to get to know who Nolan was. It was the right approach for our family.
Cindy and I had a couple of therapy options from which to choose for Nolan after he’d turned 4 and became eligible for services. One involved client having to do extensive tabletop activities, and the other was the program we ultimately selected. The director of that program was a woman who still was a proud 1960s flower child, had seen The Doors in concert, and had once given folk singer Phil Ochs a ride from an airport. She also was the proud grandmother of a boy who had Autism, and she shared with us stories about him during our initial meeting. Her passion for wanting to help her grandson shone through, and she made it clear that it was her goal to do the same for all of the program’s clients.
The key to success, she said, was for a therapist to meet the child at his or her level and build a relationship with him or her. She referred to a young man who either was or had been in the other program we’d considered and told us that while he could sit at a table and solve math equations in rapid-fire succession, he had extreme difficulty interacting with others.
Communication and trust are cornerstones to any strong relationship. That’s why each therapist was encouraged to spend the first few sessions he or she worked with Nolan just interacting with him through play. Once that connection had hopefully been established, then it was time to place demands on him.
By my estimation, Nolan had a few hundred therapy sessions between the time he was in Early Childhood until he was a fifth grader. Yeah, it was great to see him learn to be able to dress himself; to write letters, his name, and other words legibly when he really tried; and to follow directions. But my favorite moments were seeing the special bond each therapist eventually forged with my son:
The way he would toss a blanket back and forth with one young lady as he bounced on his yoga ball. Their very unique game of catch opened the door to her being able to get him to work on other things.
The way one young man who ended up staying on Nolan’s team for more than six years and worked his way up to a leadership position within the organization helped him work through his fear of dogs by constantly trying to keep him calm and assuring him that he wouldn’t get hurt. The same young man also coaxed Nolan into going down the water slide during his 8th birthday party at the local YMCA, and he and another therapist helped facilitate what I would consider a successful play date with a neurotypical second grade classmate.
The way two young ladies were able to get Nolan to ride his bike at the neighborhood park, even if it was only for a few seconds.
The way they all would come with whenever Cindy and/or I would take Nolan out in the community – be it to parks, department stores, and local sporting events, among other places – and work with him on things such as staying safe, communicating his needs on his iPad, and playing appropriately.
I’ll occasionally think about Nolan’s therapists this time of year as graduation day approaches for college students. We typically had to say goodbye to one or two therapists every spring. I can’t speak for any of them, but I know that final session was difficult for us. Sometimes I’d tell them that, like it or not, they’d become honorary family members, and I meant it. Nolan had made noticeable gains from his first session with them to his last, and they could be proud of that.
We’ve kept up with many of them via social media, and they seem to be doing well. I know at least one is working with disabled individuals, and two are working with children in one capacity or another. Whatever the rest are doing, I’d like to believe they’re making a difference in someone’s life.
Nolan is proof that they’re excellent at doing that.