Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story— Psalm 107 – 1-2
There’s a story from my teaching career that I often share when I’m speaking at a retreat or a conference, but I can’t remember if I’ve ever written it down. So, in the immortal words of every storyteller holding forth at a party, “Stop me if you’ve heard this…”
CHANGE THE WORLD: One of my first jobs out of university was in the “Autism Unit” at a regional mental health center, where I was responsible for the youngest children, ages 3-6. Primarily, I focused on training essential developmental skills that the children had missed, such as their first words, toilet-training, fine and gross motor movement, social skills, and how to play.
The work was intense, non-stop, rich, rewarding, overwhelming, emotionally taxing, all kinds of fun, and completely exhausting. I typically had between six and ten students, two-three paraprofessional staff, and a couple of volunteers. There was – as I’m sure you can imagine – never a dull moment.
I was fresh out of college, idealistic, and completely confident. I was ready to change the world; and – in terms of those children, that program, and the regional school system – we did. We completely re-imagined the way children with Autism were thought of and instructed; we established new protocols county-wide, and our program was on the cutting edge of a wave of change that set aside ignorant, repressive, archaic practices, moving out of the darkness and toward the light.
THE STORY: “Frankie” was six years old when he came into my classroom. His “presenting” issues were multiple, but the biggest concern was self-injurious “sensory-stimulation.” Frankie “flapped” his lips; he hit himself in the mouth, compulsively, 100-200 times every minute, causing extensive tissue damage.
His mother, and his previous teachers, had “tried everything.” They yelled at Frankie; they slapped him; the punished him; they held his hands away from his face, or behind his back (then he just bounced his face on the desk, or his knees); they tried every conceivable “aversive stimulus” they could imagine; they had no idea what they were doing.
But Frankie’s self-destructive behavior was, on some level, bringing him comfort. So everything people did to “punish” him made him need the behavior more.
Frankie’s previous teacher showed up at the intake meeting. She made a point of lecturing me regarding how to handle my new student. “You’re going to have to find something he really hates and hold that over his head,” she said. “If you scare him enough he’ll finally back down.”
I was young; I was full of great ideas; I was horrified by what I was hearing; I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “But isn’t Frankie being placed here because what you’ve been doing isn’t working?” I said (while my principal face-palmed). “How about I observe him for a week or so and then get back to you on your plan?”
What Frankie needed was something to feel good about that didn’t involve busting himself in the mouth. What he didn’t need was one more person pushing him further into the hole he was hiding in.
So I ignored the flapping. Instead, I rewarded Frankie – instantly – for doing anything constructive that was incompatible with his self-destructive behavior. Coloring; working a puzzle; playing ball; banging on a drum; holding and turning the pages of picture books; practicing his vowel sounds (he didn’t talk… yet); climbing the playground equipment; beating on a musical triangle during music time….
We continued to document lip-flapping activity, but we never let Frankie know it was on our radar.
Within a week, lip-flapping was down to maybe a hundred or so flaps per hour. Within two weeks the behavior was eliminated entirely.
MY POINT: Here’s why this story came to mind today. Our society is chock full with people who want to do nothing but point out everything that they don’t like, or don’t think other people should be thinking/saying/doing.
In politics, and religion, it seems like the majority of what we hear is “against” something “those other people” believe.
Enough already with telling us what you’re against! How about spending some energy telling the world – and practicing – what you are for?
As for me, I’m for following Jesus. I’m going to invest my energy, and my imagination, telling a story that’s incompatible with darkness, with fear, with hate, with despair, with being lost, with broken relationships, and with an eternity separated from the presence of God.
The Psalmist said, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story.”
I’m one of the redeemed, and I’m telling my story. Like my little friend, Frankie, the best answer to defeat the darkness is – simply – to move into the light.
[God] brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains. Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds – Psalm 107 – 14-15
Peace – DEREK