When 10-year-old Brian returned to SaintA’s residential program after going to school off site, it was obvious something was not right.
The boy is on the autism spectrum, and he likes things to be just so.
“He really wants to do well, and we tell him he’s a smart kid and can do it, but if one thing goes wrong, he sabotages everything,” said Stephanie Gibart, a youth counselor on the unit where the boy resides.
Stephanie’s co-worker Abigail Myers went to the glassed-in SaintA lobby to meet Brian and walk him up to the unit. She likes Brian’s sense of humor, and when he allows a person into his world, she said, he’s really quite enjoyable.
Not this day.
Brian came in pacing. His hands were balled up. He knocked over all the chairs in the lobby, then he started ripping up brochures from a display case. It was anyone’s guess when his energetic kicking would crack the glass.
When Abbi asked him how his day at school was, he punched her. She turned to her side, as she is trained to do, stepped back and told him in an even tone that hitting her wouldn’t solve anything. Stephanie joined them in the lobby a minute later and Brian hit her, too.
“I’m not going to hurt you, so don’t hurt me,” she calmly told Brian, adding, “Did I deserve that?”
“No, but I’m angry!” he said.
It turns out that his school normally does typing on a different day and because this was the “wrong” day, Brian simply could not adjust.
About this time, Chris Kangas, a SaintA child and family therapist, came into the lobby.
“I’d only met him once or twice before, so, being new to him, I stayed back. Abbi and Stephanie were just talking to him, in a very supportive tone, very calm and regulated.”
Then Stephanie got an idea. Ripping up paper — the kind of rhythmic and repetitive activity that works in the lower brain and promotes regulation — had helped a different boy the day before. So she told Chris to get some. Receptionist Carmen McGee supplied a stack of old letterhead destined for recycling.
Then the razzle-dazzle started. Stephanie and Abbi held the paper up and told Brian, “Do your karate moves!” He started chopping at the paper, then crumpled it up and stomped it. Then Chris brought out a garbage can, and the balled-up paper led to an ersatz game of basketball.
“Being 6’ 5”, I could raise it up a bit!” Chris said with a laugh.
In a short time, Brian started to get into the game, wear down a bit, and begin to smile.
“Then we heard his classic, ‘OK, I’m ready. We can go now,’ ” Abbi said.
How did these two young women manage to accomplish their goal?
“First of all, I empathize with what he’s going through,” Stephanie said. “I understand that sometimes I get burned out after a long day. I wonder what he’s feeling.”
“Because of my relationship with him, I know what he’s like,” Abbi said. Although Brian tends to talk at more than with people, she connects with him through his interest in football and young-adult comic books. He loves to be tucked in at night, Stephanie said, and Abbi uses that time to converse with him.
“And I know that exerting power is not going to get you anywhere,” Abbi said. “You just have to humble yourself and meet him where he is.”
Abbi and Stephanie have become good friends. “We play off each other well, and I think the kids get a kick out of it,” Stephanie said.
This was a perfect example of dealing with a kid in crisis in a hands-off way, Chris said. And the counselors employed several of SaintA’s Seven Essential Ingredients of Trauma Informed Care.
“You could see the trust and the relationship he had with them, and they showed an ability to rationally detach and not take anything personally. This was a creative way to let his energy out so he could become more rational. And, thank God it didn’t escalate at all.”