It’s 11:00 am. Tanya, my client, has alternated between running and hiding for over an hour. I’ve tried every strategy or behavior trick I can think of. Surrounding teachers and students stare. I can’t tell if they think I’m a saint for my patience or a lunatic for not calling the principal. I wonder how much longer this behavior will last and what I can do to redirect Tanya from her compulsion to escape. I’m rounding the corner of the hallway to keep eyes on Tanya when I see my coworker, Danielle, head toward us.
Danielle used to work with Tanya but has since switched from behavioral challenges to developmental delays. She now works with Katie who is primarily nonverbal and has autism. Whenever I see them in the hallway, I always say hello. These exchanges help Katie practice appropriate social interactions. Every once in a while Katie will wave or whisper a barely audible “hi” but mostly she continues smiling silently as she glides down the halls.
As Katie and Danielle approach Tanya (who was marching 15ft. in front of me) I wonder if I can distract Tanya. Maybe engaging Tanya in conversation with Katie would give her chance to slow down and reset her thinking. I will try just about anything to keep Tanya from continuing to run around the school. I am slightly desperate. I prompt Tanya to say hello to Katie, even though I know Katie might not respond. I know Tanya understands I say hello to Katie to help her learn to speak. Tanya remains silent, but she does stop walking away.
When Katie crosses my path, Danielle prompts her to stop and say hello. I kneel down and go through my normal routine greeting. I see Tanya looking over. I casually tell her to come over and say hi. Tanya shuffles over, her eyes averted. She mutters “hi” while studying her shoes. Katie doesn’t respond. I tell Tanya that Katie probably didn’t hear her and she could try again.
Shockingly, Tanya pops her head up, smiles, looks into Katie’s eyes and cheerfully says “hello!” She also holds up her hand to offer Katie a high-five. Katie responds with a smile, a quiet hello, and soft clap of her hand to Tanya’s. I’m having trouble processing what I’m seeing. Tanya has not listened or followed any instruction I’ve given for the last hour yet here she is, nonchalantly exchanging pleasantries with a peer who most people never take the time to communicate with.
Tanya didn’t magically stop running away after seeing Katie. But I wish I knew exactly how Katie captivated Tanya’s attention long enough to stop running away for five minutes. I wish I knew how she inspires Tanya to pause and be kind to a fellow student. However, despite my lack of understanding, I continue searching for opportunities to facilitate these interactions. It was a small moment in time, but it was magical to see Tanya, the queen of verbal insults and defiance, genuinely take interest in another human being. Especially since Katie does not meet Tanya’s usual standards for normal.