At a conference a whole bunch of years ago, a social work colleague invited me to her agency, to sit in on a special support program. The program was for adults in their early twenties. The young adults all had something in common: some professional had classified their learning or interactive styles as falling somewhere on the autism spectrum.
I was eager to meet the members. I wanted to experience their support for one another. I looked forward to small-talk-free conversations about their favorite islands of competence: maybe the Fibonacci ratio in the structure of sunflowers, or Jane’s directory of military armored vehicles, or the pioneering formula for the manufactured snow in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The counselors held the group in a college auditorium with a stage, in an activity corner stocked with art supplies and brightened with handmade festive winter-themed sparklies & bunting. The lead counselor gave me a warm welcome, and explained the educational objectives of today’s lesson plan. Then she opened the meeting by giving instructions to the group.
First, choose a magazine.
Look through the photos.
Find pictures of People Who Are Happy.
Cut out their pictures. Paste them to construction paper.
Fold them into holiday cards for the parents.
The counselor spoke in a strong raised animated voice. “Can you find the happy people? Remember what we said about happy faces? Look: The corners of my mouth go up, like so. My eyes are wide and bright. This is a HAPPY face.”
I was lost already.
Put pictures of total strangers on a card, and give the card to someone else. Was that to create vicarious happiness in the recipient looking at the card?
Was it a living skill likely to prove useful?
Since the magazines showed professional models paid to smile on cue — were we supposed to sort through all that elation and pick just the real Duchenne smiles described in Psychology Today?
The clients sat with folded hands and lowered eyes.
So did I. I was afraid the counselors were going to call on me to pick out a photograph showing happiness. Those aptitude tests that tell you to look at somebody’s face and then figure out what they feel? Well, I can’t make heads or tails of them. Clearly, a career as a spectrum-support counselor (or as a successful spectrum-support group member, for that matter), was not in my future.
A young man slid away from the table and started pacing a short path along the wall, arms stiff in a protective gesture against his sides.
“Jason,” called a counselor. “Would you like to sit down?”
Jason may have wondered, as did I, how his body language expressed a desire to sit down. He walked to one corner, turned around, and walked back.
“Jason,” said another counselor. “You really really need to sit down.”
Jason paced like clockwork in neat squared corners.
“Jason,” they said. “Wouldn’t you like to join the group, with everybody else?”
Then, I remembered a little boy.
He was a child at a faculty holiday party from years before.
The child had a loud unmodulated voice and a formal speaking style.
Despite some laughter and teasing and his parents’ humorous orders to “Chill OUT already!” the boy was showing real frustration, shouting above the stereo music to order the guests to arrange their party chairs as he advised.
“You’ve got a whole system for these chairs, haven’t you?” I asked him.
“Traffic flow,” he explained. “Front door, coat closet, kitchen, bathroom.”
His idea made grand sense. I knelt down and introduced myself, holding out my hand for a shake.
He looked dismayed by the handshake, but was soon mollified by my questions about his toy cars.
Soon he ran off to his room, and returned an hour later with a large poster he had drawn for me. It showed the location of all his model cars on their proper shelves, in case I wanted to play with them. The poster also showed a picture of his house, a cutaway view with all the rooms (and furniture arranged for traffic flow), so I could always find my way back to visit again. The kid had an x-ray mind; he looked at ordinary objects and saw the giblets and innards and connections that made it all work.
Giblets and innards, and how they all work.
At the craft table, that gave me a new idea.
I slipped away from the group to the far end of the auditorium. I sat in the corner, facing the wall. I picked up the heavy maroon velvet stage curtain and grasped a handful, letting it clink. “Huh. It’s a chain,” I said to myself.
In a flash, Jason was sitting beside me. His fingers followed along next to mine, picking up the heavy curtain hem and shaking it at his ear.
I didn’t look at him. “Heavy metal links,” I whispered. “They loop together and make the chain. Then the chain holds the curtain down.”
Through the velvet his fingers traced the link shapes, testing the connections between them.
“So the chain drags the curtain.” I walked away from him to the side of the stage. “Stage curtains run on a pulley. One side of a rope pulls the chain up, and the other side pulls it down. The rope must be in the curtain.”
Jason leaped on the stage, rummaged through the folds of velvet, seized the rope, and held a long loop behind him.
I took the loop. “One side rope pulls the chain open. One side pulls it closed.”
We each took a handful of rope. It took us a few minutes to take turns and work together; but soon we were able to open and close the curtain.
The counselors came and got us.
I guess that’s just as well; you can’t run a group if people start wandering around tugging on things. Besides, up on the stage Jason was on a roll, making an avid beeline for a control panel with buttons and switches. Who knows how that might have ended. Laser light show? Sound system test? Climate changes in the HVAC?
I hope the parents liked their cards; for a parent, that was actually a really sweet idea. And maybe some day some Mom and Dad will get a model as a gift, made by somebody curious and quick with his hands; a little stage with velvet and chains, handwork in another shape of happiness.