Feelings? 3

by Nancy Bekhor

Kath was also a teacher of autistic children and she invited Donna, herself autistic to ‘help’ at a camp for autistic children.
The offer was left open, and Donna was free to come-for-as-long as she was able to cope.
” I arrived by train, then bus and then taxi to a setting in the midst of the countryside of Kent. The children were inside, and I was overwhelmed by the number of people. Kath said she’d tell them I was coming, bu that didn’t stop the usual ‘hello theres’ and I gravitated towards Kath.”
One child stood out.
“Anne was eight but the size of a 6 year old, with long blonde hair and pale
white skin like mine. More distinctive was her gaze; one eye staring blankly ahead, the other turned sharply inwards. She was seated at the table with her mouth firmly set around the edge of it, as she explored the surface with her tongue. I looked at her and felt somewhat exposed.
….

Kath wasn’t with her, and the other professionals were impatiently shouting at her in what I felt from her state must have been an unintelligilble mass of noise threatening to get in. So these were the professionals, I thought, as I reflected on my mother’s own approach. Looking at Anne, I thought to myself: I know where you are.

Getting Anne to do anything sent her into total hysterics as one might expect from a child blind and deaf to the world around her and most likely also to herself. Yet something was missing. She had no form of comforting herself. I felt compelled to give her a consistent pattern; something to hold on to and use to calm herself down long enough to open her eyes and take a look at ‘the world’. The threat of exposing this in front of the other people seemed impossible.

Anne followed me about, and I headed outside for the space of unfenced-in greeness. Anne was chasing me as I avoided her; busy dancing upon her shadow, we chased each other back and forth in turn, both of our eyes on the other’s shadow and feet. I looked up to see a few teachers looking out as us through the glass of the kitchen window. Who’s under glass now? I thought.


It was night time , and the children were being put to bed. Naturally this wasn’t an easy task when it comes to children who aren’t used to being still and are not quite aware of what sleep is meant to be for. Anne screamed in terrified hysterics as one of the professionals sat on the bed beside her tucking a doll in next to her, which seemed to horrify her all the more. Oh these symbols of normality, dolls, I thought. Oh these terrifying reminders that one is meant to be comforted by people and if one can’t one is meant at least to feel comforted by their effigies.

The woman sitting on Annes’s bed was screaming at her over and over again to shut up and propping the doll back in its place with every shove Anne made to push it away. It was more than I could take. Physically I moved the woman out of the way, moved the doll and gave her my brush. Anne ran her fingers repetitively through the bristles listening to the soft, barely audible sound in her ear and the sensation in her hand. I began to hum a repetitive tune I use for myself over and over again as I tapped her arm in time to the hypnotic tune. Give her something consistent to hold on to, I thought. There’ll be all the time in the world for the experts to undo it.

Anne’s crossed eyes were fozen in a dead stare and she became silent between sobs. I took her hand and made here tap her own arm as I had, the tune and the rhythm and the tapping held totally constant.

I heard a soft but audible rythm coming from outside me, Anne was making the tune herself in her throat and I slowly dropped notes of my humming and, as I expected, she filled them in as though they were and had had been her own. Slowly, I dropped out more and more of them until she was doing not only the rythym in her throat but carrying the tune as she tapped herself in time. Then for a frozen fifteen seconds in that torchlit dark room, she completely uncrossed her eyes for the first time since I’d met her and looked directly into my face as she tapped and now hummed. I went to leave several times, only to have to repeat the process. What was important however, was that as I left she continued to tap and hum the tune between short bursts of fear.

The sun had come up on a new day, and a trip to the park was scheduled. Anne’s screams came from a small room at the back of the hall. I walked to the door only to see the same tactics of trying to calm her down by screaming ‘Shut up’ into her face.

“I will stay with her,’ I said coldly from the doorway.

‘You’re welcome to her,’ came the reply, which seemed to sound as though she were some sort of unwanted baggage which the woman was glad to be rid of.
I took out a crystal I had with me and turned it in front of Anne’s face. Anne grabbed for it, and I let her take it. I looked at it in her hand and felt I could see glimpses of my grandparents in myself as I related to her through the object. I sang the old tune over and over again and Anne’s hand went automatically up to her arm and she tapped herself to the rythm and eventually joined in. We went out peacefully to the bus.
Someone grabbed suddenly for Anne to pile her on to the bus. In the confusion of children everywhere and verbal garble Anne again went into hysterics. Then, suddenly her hand went up to her arm and she tapped herself, humming the tune. The bus started up, and she allowed herself to be strapped in. As she calmed down, the tapping and humming stopped. Anne was learning she could control her own anxiety and the level of overwhelming input. When we got to the park the same thing happened. She calmed herself down and climbed out of the bus.
I walked ahead across the grass. On tiptoe, Anne half-ran, half stumbled as she made her way to where I was. She took my hand, and in unison we broke into a skip, swinging our hands as went away from the others, across the park to the swings.
We both got on the swings. As we swung higher and higher, I remembered another park a long long time ago and wondered if one day there would be a little autistic girl who would remember a person called Donna in ‘the world’ whose hand she had taken to skip across the park.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Lyndal April 13, 2012 at 5:06 am

What strikes me here in this passage is this; Grown adults do not work well with children who do not behave in an ‘age appropriate’ manner. It goes against the grain. If these autistic children were behaving as Anna did, and were of kindergarten age or younger, would they be treated in this manner by their carers?
Just a thought…

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Nancy Bekhor April 13, 2012 at 6:13 am

Oh yes… The contradictions. The clash of comforts

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