Friday, May 31, 2013

Getting To Know Me.....

Early on in my teaching career I worked in an institution
 for emotionally challenged children and adults.
It is a government-run provincial institution. 

After two years of working
 in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, we moved to the city of Halifax,
the capital of Nova Scotia.

Back in those days it was no problem finding teaching jobs especially 
ones teaching students with 'special needs'. When I got this new job
I knew it would be challenging and I had the energy and the desire
to work with this population (for reasons I may get to in this
'Getting To Know Me' series).

                                       So, my teaching position was to work with children from
the ages of 5 to 12 years of age.

These kids were all 'live-in' patients of this hospital.
They were there for either evaluation and/or treatment,
and a few actually lived there for a while until a proper
placement could be found.

The facility I worked in was brand new and a separate building
from their residence and also from the adult hospital.
This institution is situated on a beautiful piece of land 
overlooking Halifax Harbour and it actually slopes 
down to the water.

I had about eight children the first year. And a few 
I will never forget for different reasons.

One little fellow was autistic. Back then in 1977
autism was not getting the attention it is getting
today. It was a 'condition' that was treated like a number
of other 'disorders' the mentally challenged.

I know these terms are not used today and I have
witnessed a number of 'labels' and their evolution
over the years.

Suffice to say that this boy displayed all the 
stereotypical behaviors of a person with autism.
He was about 9 or 10 years old and wore a helmet
to protect him from the impacts he would 
self-inflict.....he was what we called
a 'head-banger'.

He was a gentle little boy most of the time
but I was soon to discover that he didn't
like his routine being all.

Every morning he would leave his residence
and head up to the school building like
the rest of the kids did.

Only thing was he would make his way up the path
going/facing backwards. He would almost go at a 
joggers pace running backwards all the way up
and into the school, down the hall, into the classroom
and to his desk....backwards. And, he was good at it!

As I had mentioned, this was all new to me and I was
in the learning mode as well. So, one morning I
wanted to change my classroom around a bit
and proceeded to rearrange the desks and tables.

Everything looked better in my mind...until
this boy was on his way into the newly arranged 
room and couldn't find his desk where it was 'supposed'
to be. He began to SCREAM and cry. I didn't know
immediately what was wrong with him until
he made it perfectly clear through his arm movements
and gestures that he wanted his desk to be where it
always had been....up near the blackboard.

I moved it back as fast as I could and he settled down
and I learned something too that day.

This fellow couldn't/wouldn't speak and he kept
pretty much to himself. Most of the time all I could 
do with him was to let him draw. He would make
these incredible and very intricate designs
either on paper or on the blackboard. And all 
freehand. He so enjoyed doing these.

The hospital setting took a little getting used to after teaching
in a public school setting. I was now part of a medical team
that worked together to determine what behavior therapy or 
treatment was best for each individual.

For this little guy one of the behavior therapies used to 
discourage his head-banging was to use a 'cattle prod'
on his arm whenever he hit his head.

All team members were involved in this so that there would be
consistency and therefore complete elimination of this behavior.
Or at least that was the aim.....and it was well-intentioned.
Remember it was 1977.

The 'shock' from one of these things was obvious to anyone
who tried it out. You knew it was uncomfortable and got your
attention. I immediately did not like this 'therapy'. Something
just didn't sit right with me about using this on a child, let
alone anybody.

As a 'team member' I had to record each time he would hit his head
or self-inflict in any other  way. I also was expected to use this
device (like a large wand) on his arm.

I felt that there was nothing else I could do but comply.
So the first time he self-inflicted I gave him a shock.
(Even saying this and writing this now makes me feel ashamed
that I did this.)

I felt even worse for him after he started to cry and sob.
 It was like I had betrayed him and that was what hurt him the most.

Again, a learning situation for me. From that first 'treatment'
till the end of the year, I fudged the program chart by writing down
false instances and treatments. It was all I could do to keep my job 
and not have to inflict any pain on this innocent child.

This little fellow was there for the year and never stopped 
self-inflicting. He was placed in another institution
and I have no idea what became of him.

The two years I spent at this hospital pretty well drained the energy
out of me. I knew I could not spend another year there. 
It was far too demanding emotionally for me.

We moved to Vancouver, British Columbia on the west coast of Canada
that summer. And you know what job I was offered in a school-setting?

One for emotionally disturbed children! I declined and started painting houses 
and doing gardening to make a living....along with substitute teaching.


  1. Wow, this was very interesting; thank you for sharing, and so honestly too. Thumbs up for resisting such an unenlightened, inhumane approach. Thankfully, I think we've come some ways since then.

  2. It is awful to think of the "treatments" that were handed out back then. Thank goodness we have made good progress on that front. I remember in high school (mid 70's) we had a group of Down Syndrome kids join the school. hey had their own classes but joined us for gym, assemblies, lunch etc. They were great and the whole school really enjoyed having them. Back then they were called the TMH group for Trainable Mentally Handicapped.

    1. My first 12 years were with TMH kids and as well with EMH (Educable Mentally Handicapped). These two groups were so different and miles apart ability wise in some areas. Sounds like the classes I had in high school with these kids....we were separated most of the day from the general population....until 'Mainstreaming' became popular....then all hell broke lose!! I was so in favour of this with the proper supports for the classroom teachers.

  3. Wow, Jim, a cattle prod? That is so disturbing. I can certainly understand why that was so upsetting to you. Just reading about it makes me ill, never mind doing it. I'm glad you resisted. And I'm glad we've come a long way since then even if we still have a long way to go. At least we're moving forward.

    1. It was Martha. I was shocked that it was being used there with children. And we are moving forward in so many ways.

  4. Replies
    1. It was an interesting time, Pat.

  5. I remember very well the emotional drain of such clients
    A lovely story well told

    1. Hey John! Thanks. I am sure you know the toll it can have on one after time.

  6. How wonderful that you taught students with special needs, Jim! Thank you so much for sharing this.

    1. It was my 'comfort zone' Linda. I never had a 'regular' classroom with 'normal' kids. I am sure I would have found that boring!

  7. I'm sure everyone has done something they were against doing, at one time or another for a job, peer pressure, or whatever. I learned early on, as I am sure you did, that if something makes you feel like a slug, it isn't worth doing.

    I still don't believe they have autism figured out, but a prod...

    1. That whole incident reminded me of a 'lesser version' of 'shock therapy' which they administered to adults at this time. It just didn't 'ring' for me.
      I was listening to a radio program this week about a mother who had done (quite successfully) very unconventional things with her son and today he is studying quantum physics in university.
      I agree, we have have just scratched the surface on this and other things.

  8. Jim- what an amazing story. You have seen so much- and witnessed such desperate situations. I am sure that your history with these children has impacted and brought you to the person you are today. Those are deeply emotionally exhausting situations-/ I totally understand why you finally just had to break from it all:)


    1. Hi Vicki. Looking back like this one can see things in a different light from when one is immersed in it. It had a very powerful effect on me and also was a rewarding experience to have at that time as it prepared me for a lot that was ahead of me.

  9. Thank goodness we are moving forward in so many ways.

  10. It's so interesting to see how therapies and labels change through the years. I just read a book about an autistic child who is a prodigy - you might enjoy it, Jim (the Spark by Kristine Barnett). There are so many "labels" now compared to when I was teaching and so much medication.

    1. Barb, I heard an interview with her and her son on CBC radio last week. We were so impressed with them both. You are correct Barb, that book is on my to do list.
      I seemed every year there was a new label to call the kids I worked with.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this. I can't imagine how hard it must have been to administer that "treatment." It was hard to read :(

    1. Maybe if I thought it would have been effective Lisa, I would have had no problem. But, was hard indeed and I knew that from the gitgo. How are things with you? Will 'stop by' to see.

  12. I really appreciate your honesty here; I hope you forgive yourself. Mistakes are an opportunity to learn and you certainly learned that lesson quickly.

    1. Hello dbs. Yes I have forgiven myself and pretty much directly after I made up my mind not to do it again. Actually the little guy helped a lot in that!!

  13. Jim, I admire you for working with special needs children--It takes a special person to do this, and it only adds to the respect I have for you. Not everyone can do it, and I can also respect and understand your decision to take your life in another direction. But I would like to think that this young man's family may have appreciated your kindness and compassion and understanding that you showed towards him. I know that I would have. My youngest brother who was born in 1975 has what is now known as Asperger's syndrome, and there were many teachers and other peers who were not as understanding or tolerant towards him, as I felt that they should be. For an older sister, it's heartbreaking to know what he endured in school. I'm glad things have changed for others like him....

  14. this was hard to read, I almost cried-and am so glad you did not use the tool more than once-sometimes I just wonder about the human race in general (historically speaking), deep down many seem to get into cruelty instead of other ways, goes way back to child abuse and wife abuse etc. and It's hard to fight back in this situation-I applaud you for how you handled this-to fight back to the others you probably would have gotton fired from the job, this way the little boy was at least safe in your class


Hey, I really like your comments and appreciate the time you took to do so.

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