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August 10, 2006

A Mind-Opening Experience

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/a_mindopening_experience_20060811

Last fall, I started working with Franklin, a 7-year-old autistic boy. I was given the title of "behaviorist," and my job was to help shape the child's behavioral and social patterns, promoting ones healthy to his development, while curbing ones that hinder him.

I had previously interacted with children on the autistic spectrum but never for an extensive period. My supervisor told me all about the boy and how his mind works.

"We try to keep him in our world as much as possible," she said. "So much of what he says makes little sense to us and not much to him, either. Try to make sense of his thoughts with him. Take him out of his imaginary world; bring him to ours so that he can relate his thoughts to you."

At the time, I didn't really get what all of that meant.

Going in, I thought that autistic people don't display much outward feeling, but Franklin turned out to be a joyous young boy who smiles and laughs and seems to enjoy life. After spending a week with him in the typical second-grade classroom, it seemed to me that Franklin lived permanently carefree. I quickly learned that this was not so.

"Adam's tears destroyed the classroom," Franklin said one day.

"What do you mean?" I asked, looking around the room. I noticed that a boy to the left was crying, his face resembling a wet tomato.

"Oh yeah, Adam's crying," I said. "He must be sad about something."

"Adam's tears destroyed the classroom," he repeated. "We have to run!"

He seemed genuinely concerned, so I assured him that the classroom was not going to be harmed, that we were safe. Soon, Adam stopped crying, and the situation calmed.

"Adam's tears are flooding the room!" he said.

"Franklin, he's not crying anymore," I said. "He's OK, and we're OK."

It took a few minutes for Franklin to drop the subject.

I seized the opportunity and asked him to draw a picture of what had happened. He quickly took out his crayons and started to draw.

In Franklin's portrait of the classroom, Adam sat in the corner of the paper with aqua blue crayola pouring out of his face. Franklin had scribbled the blue all over the desks, the walls, the other kids and the teacher. It looked as though a dam had broken. The water was even pouring out the window, carrying a body with it.

"Who's falling out the window?" I asked.

"That's you," he replied.

Franklin clearly had a problem with crying. The emotion was literally bursting, flooding and destroying everything in its path. I didn't understand it at first, but as I gazed at the drawing, I started to realize what Franklin was communicating.

His vision was like a waking dream, conveying a fear associated with disaster and destruction. Here, the disaster was the public expression of sadness.

It wasn't difficult for me to understand his feelings, because I sympathize with them. There's something about crying that really bothers me, too; not so much when others do it, but for myself. I know that I am a control freak when dealing with my emotions, but it was a revelatory experience to watch Franklin react to the tears, as if I were looking into a mirror reflecting my own psyche.

In the ensuing weeks, Franklin's drawing kept popping into my mind, provoking me to think more about my own self-restraint. I realized that I hold a lot of pain inside to protect myself; I couldn't even remember the last time I had cried. Franklin seems to dream while he is awake.

In so doing, the parts of his mind that typically remain hidden are exposed. In any situation, you never know what is going to come out of his mouth. He may only say a few words, a few details, but they paint a picture so vivid that a whole world is created. And often, this world is one in which Franklin can deal with his own fears and anxieties. It seems that through his fantasies, Franklin processes his inner insecurity in the only way he knows how.

In a way, he is teaching me to do the same thing.

After working with Franklin for nine months, I can say now with certainty that he has literally changed my life. Observing his struggles and helping him get in touch with his emotions has helped me to understand my own. Our bond grew tighter as the year went on, as I constantly encouraged him to confront his feelings, however painful.

Eventually, Franklin allowed himself to cry in front of me. He had become the boy with the wet tomato face. I could only hope that one day I'd be the same. Most of our dreams remain forgotten, apparitions of the nighttime that forever stay locked up in the lower reaches of our minds.

Franklin's dreams are not locked up. They are free.

I know, because he shares them with me every day, and lucky for me, I have been given the chance to listen.

Ezra Werb is a behaviorist who works with autistic children. He writes fiction in his free time.

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