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