Earlier today I was sitting alone at the dinning room table (Martin, Jen and Sasha were outside with a bucket of soapy water washing Martin’s urine off our neighbor’s sidewalk) thinking back on Martin’s spring break and reflecting on one of the complicating facts of our situation: it’s hard to tell when the help that someone offers is going to turn out to be helpful.
Jen and I both work, so school vacations get a little tricky for childcare. So we welcomed the note that came home in Martin’s backpack about the YMCA’s spring break camp/daycare. The note said that all students were welcome, but we called the YMCA office to make sure they would be comfortable and prepared for Martin.
We got a call back the next day from an enthusiastic woman who in no-uncertain-terms reassured us that Martin would be most welcome.
Me: Martin has some behavior issues.
She: Does he speak at all?
Me: Yes. He’s pretty verbal, but he does hit his teachers in school sometimes.
She: Well, we have several staff members with experience with autistic children.
Me (Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth): Well, that’s great.
I dropped him off on Monday and the woman at the desk greeted him warmly. Martin said, “Hello, Carol. [She was wearing a name tag.] My name is Martin.” When he had walked away to join the other children watching a cartoon, I said, “This is Martin Vlasits, the boy on the autism spectrum.” I tried to start filling her in about some of his behaviors but she cut me off with a knowing nod and turned to the next parent. I didn’t want to helicopter so I just said goodbye to Martin and left.
At 10:30, the camp director called. They were having trouble getting him out of the pool. He had kicked a staff member several times. “Would you like me to come pick him up?” “No, no, but we would like to get some advice from you about how to handle him.” I tattled on the woman at the front desk who hadn’t listened to me and then gave them some general tips (avoid escalation, suggest alternativeness, consider letting him not follow the program if he’s willing to do some other activity that isn’t disruptive).
When I picked him up that afternoon, I had a longer conversation with the director. She was very nice. They had a bunch of kids they hadn’t been expecting. The autism-trained people weren’t part of their daily camp staff. She hoped things would go better tomorrow.
Things did go better on Tuesday. No phone calls. When I picked him up he had a large abrasion on his forehead. No blood, but ugly. He had hit another staff member a few times, but overall it was still a better day.
On Wednesday, Jen picked up Martin. I was at home when they arrived. She dissembled a bit since she was talking in front of Martin, “The camp director thinks the camp might not be equipped for him.” “Was there hitting, Martin?” I asked. “Yes. A teacher got hit,” he said glumly.
This basic pattern is not uncommon. When people hear about someone in a pitiable condition, they want to help. Sometimes they have something useful to offer and sometimes they don’t. However, I have learned three things that make this pattern quite acceptable: 1. No person’s help always helps. 2. Many times when a person offers help that fails to be helpful, they learn from their mistakes and offer more helpful help the next time. 3. Sometimes help that looks like it is going to be unhelpful surprises us with how helpful it is (I’ll try to remember to tell one of those stories some time).
The message then for potential helpers is this: If you want to be a hero, go find a yourself a nice fictional problem and convince yourself you’ve solved it. But if you’re willing to muddle along with Martin and us and you’re willing to discover that what you’re doing isn’t very helpful and you’re willing to accept gratitude for a job moderately well done and you aren’t expecting immediate results and rewards… well… pull on your boots and welcome aboard.