Joseph Trance

Name (Part 2)

I accessed my Blackberry and took a look at Benny’s schedule; functional academics.  Sheila.  She was polishing her nails again; purple this time.  She didn’t even look up when I entered the room. 

   “It’s ‘bout time, Benny.  Where the hell were you?  Did you fall in the bowl?”  I cleared my throat and she looked up and blushed, a deep red.

    “Oh, hi, Ricky.”  She quickly added, “He said, ‘bat room’ and I let him go.  I was just going to look for him when you…”

I put my hand up.  “Stop talking, Sheila.  Give him his name sheets and make sure he gets his puzzle when he is done.”  She rolled her eyes and shook her head.

        “Why do you even bother, Rick?   It’s not like he’s ever going to sign paychecks or anything.”  Sheila was pushing forty, a tenured trainer, burnt to a nice fat crisp.  She had been with the center for ten years, never finished her B.A., and had been passed up for promotions because of it.  She had a rep for hassling supervisors especially younger ones like me with graduate degrees.   At another time I would have tried to coax her, plead with her even to do her job.  But I wasn’t in the mood for her bull at the moment. 

“Just do it, Sheila!”  I snapped.  Her eyes got wide and she put down the nail polish.  She studied me for a moment, blew on her nails and said, “Sure, Ricky. ”  She pulled the folder of copied sheets that had Benny’s name outlined in broken lines.

“Sit, Ben-gi.  Okay…let’s write your name, again.  And then you can play with your puzzles, won’t that be fun?”  She flashed me an ingratiating smile, and I wanted to bust her in the mouth. The door rattled as I left.

    Barbara was studying the screen when I walked into Media.  She looked up as I came in.

     “Here, have a seat,” she said as she patted the chair next to her.  “Take a look,” she said as she turned her attention back to the screen.    I looked, but not at the screen.  Her face had regained its color, and her eyes had lost the glassy look.  She was back to confident and strong, business as usual.  But there was also an aura of excitement around her.  I felt it as I plopped into the seat.  I looked at the screen and there was Benny working on his beach scene.  I looked at her again.

   “So, what’s the big deal?  I’ve seen him do puzzles before.”

“Just watch.  Watch.”  The edge in her voice and the look in her eye prompted me to look again.

The beach scene puzzle was one of Ben’s favorites.  Sweeping blue ocean waves, large white sand castles, and kids in multi-colored swim suits, comprised most it.   The top of the puzzle was a sky; swirling red, orange and purple shades surrounding a bright orange sun.  It was very pretty, but it didn’t explain Barb’s excitement; she wasn’t the nature type.

“There!   That!  He just did it again! “

“What?  What did he do?”

“Damn, Rick, shut up and watch!” she snapped.  I shut up and regarded the screen.  I watched him for a while as he placed a few more pieces into the puzzle. 

“I don’t get it…so he does puzzles…what..?” 

Barb smiled and shook her head.  Still looking at the screen she said,

“One more time, look.  Task -analyze what you see.”

     I studied the screen as Benny picked up a puzzle piece, and rubbed it between his fingers.  He picked up the puzzle box and looked at the picture of the completed scene.    He closed his eyes and began to rock as he rubbed the piece between his fingers.  He opened his eyes and immediately placed the piece that he had been rubbing into the puzzle.  I watched him do five more pieces the same way… weird.  But I still didn’t understand.  I looked back at Barbara, the glassy look was back.  She pulled her eyes away from the screen.

“Well?  What do you think?”  She asked.

“About what?”  I asked.

“Oh, Rick, you are so dense!  Benny has been using the picture on the cover as a guide.  He looks at it and knows where each piece goes.  Look at those pieces.”  I picked up the remote, paused the tape and zoomed in on the puzzle pieces spread out before him.

“They have no discernable differences,” Barbara said.    “But not once did he try to fit them in.  He picks up a piece, looks at the cover, closes his eyes, and ‘sees’ where each piece goes, and places it.  He can tell where each piece goes by looking at the whole picture.”  I thought about what I’d seen.

“I think you’re only partially right.  I think he is also using the shape of the piece.  Look at him rubbing.”

I pressed “Play,” and the tape continued.  We watched as Ben picked up a piece and closed his eyes.  He began to rub and I slowed down the tape and zeroed in on his fingers.   A frame by frame revealed how his fingers slowly moved over the entire piece: top and bottom surfaces, and then each edge, slowly…deliberately.  Barbara shook her head and looked at me.

“He’s just ‘ stimming’, like hand flapping or rocking..he’s just giving himself some sensory input,” she said.

“That’s what I thought too at first,” I answered.  I searched her eyes.    “But now I’m thinking he has a hypersensitive touch.  So maybe he’s also feeling where the piece goes.  Input from two modalities; seeing and feeling.”

     Barbara didn’t answer me and looked back at the screen.  In the silence, a scene from the movie ‘Rain Man’ flashed in my head.  Raymond, an autistic-savant, looks at a scattered pile of toothpicks that have been dropped by a waitress.   “Two-hundred and forty six,” he says to his brother.  He’s right.  Without touching them, just by looking, he “sees”, how many toothpicks there are.

      But Benny was no “Rain Man”, he was just a man with autism who had a weird way of doing puzzles…not exactly movie material.  He was just Benny and that’s all he would ever be.  I turned off the tape and looked at Barbara.

  “It’s interesting, but where is going to get him?  How’s it going to help him in life?  Where’s the functional value?”   She shook her head slowly.

   “I don’t know, Rick.  Why does it have to get him anywhere?  Maybe it’s just him doing what he does best.  Is everything in your life functional?”

“Well…we do everything for a reason and…”  She cut in,

“We work so hard to try to make our consumers fit into our world.  Sometimes I think we forget they are people just like us.  They really aren’t ours, we don’t own them.  But we act like we do.  We program every minute of their lives, looking to better them but…”

“But what? Without us, they couldn’t survive.”  I said.

“Really, Rick?  We work so hard to change them; cut down their self-stimulatory behaviors, teach them how to communicate and socialize, all to survive.    But at what cost?”

“What do you mean…cost, Barbara?”                                                          

“What is the point of teaching them to survive, if it changes who they are?”  I thought about that as she continued.  “Look, you’re a musician.   Like blues piano, right?”  It surprised me she knew about that, although I did have a rep for making noise on the keys in the staff lounge.  I smiled.



“Grapevine runs thick here, Samuels, and I hear you’re not too bad,” she said.    “Now suppose you were told you could only play classical.  That you couldn’t play anything else, and that someone was going to shape your playing so that you could only play classical.  Not a pleasant thought, eh?’

   “But my playing isn’t hurting me.  Benny pummels his face to a bloody mess, I have to stop..”

“I’m not talking about the injurious stuff, Rick.  Of course we have to stop those things.  I’m talking about his puzzle bent.  Why does it have to be functional?  Why can’t we just accept abilities like that without looking for a function?  It’s recreational.  It’s a part of who Benny is.”  I was too concerned about Benny’s punching the stuffing out of his face to be able to appreciate his puzzle ability.  I moved my chair back and started to get up to leave.

“It’s interesting, Barb.  But it won’t get him a job.  His review is coming up soon and I have to figure this thing out.”

“Just thought you would be interested…that’s all.  After all he is yours.”

     “No…he’s not, like you said, “We don’t own them.”  I slowly pushed my chair back and got up.  I dragged my feet to the door; they felt like they were sinking in beach sand.  Barbara turned the tape back on and was staring at it when I left.

      A few days later I noticed that Ben’s behavior began to change.  His self-abuse became erratic across all areas of program.  I had always prided myself on being able to find reasons for changes in my client’s behaviors.  Changes in activities, environment, medications, and staffing were some of the more common reasons but not his time.  He started to pummel his face in the gym which he usually loved.  And in areas where we normally would have a problem, he was calm…sometimes.  One thing that seemed to be consistent across all areas of program was his “rubbing thing.”  Reports of him closing his eyes and rubbing anything he was using were increasing.  Coins, pens, even the buttons on the clothes he was sorting were being rubbed.  Sometimes he would pummel himself and sometimes not.  But another thing that everyone noticed was his smiling and laughing was increasing.    He was having a good time with all of it.  I went through five years of past records, trying to find anything in his history that could give me a clue.  But I only read what I had read before; autistic from birth, mom was a word processor, dad a graphics software designer.  His strongest rewards were puzzles and drawing.  His drawings were more like “scribbles” multi-colored and all over the paper, scribbles.   They didn’t really say anything about him.

“All behavior is communication, Rick.”

“But what is he trying to say, Wendy?”

         His speech teacher shook her head in silence.  “I don’t know but if you stick with the premise that all behavior communicates something, then he’s telling us something.” I left her office wondering what Benny was trying to say to me.

  (   To be continued    )                                                                                   


All rights belong to its author. It was published on by demand of Joseph Trance.
Published on on 06/21/2009.


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