Autism Celebration 2012: Getting Used to Paul by Shirley Bahlmann

I’ve been comfortable around people with disabilities since I was eight years old. That’s when my parents brought home my baby sister, a cute little blue-eyed blond with Down syndrome. My ability to see her as a person was brought into sharp focus at a family reunion when I was twelve. We were swimming in a lake with our cousins when a sudden cloud of attacking horseflies forced us to duck under the water to escape their stinging bites. Since my four-year-old sister was too little to put her head underwater, I yelled, “Splash water on her, keep them off of her!”

One of my cousins gave me a curious look and said, “Why? She can’t feel them.”

I knew well and good that she could feel the pain of a horsefly bite and wondered at my cousin’s lack of intelligence. As I thought it through over the next couple of days, I finally realized that the attitude simply stemmed from a lack of experience with people like my sister.

Shirley, Paul, and her son.
Over the years, I’ve worked off and on with people of various ages who live with mental challenges. When we began providing respite care for a boy with Down syndrome, who my boys had been spending time with anyway just because they liked him, a new family moved into our neighborhood. The mother discovered that we did respite care and asked if we would be willing to provide care for their nine-year-old son, Paul, who had severe autism.

To tell the truth, I was hesitant, not just because I’d never worked with a person with autism before. It was because he was non-verbal. Everyone else I’d helped, whether old or young, could speak at least well enough to be understood and to understand me. How could I communicate with a boy who didn’t speak? Besides that, he couldn’t see very well. He had enough vision to step up at curbs, but he didn’t seem to recognize his food unless he smelled it first. Sometimes he would shake his head and his eyes vibrated back and forth.

When I voiced my concerns to his mother, she said, “Just give it a try. You’ll get used to him.”

So we brought Paul to our house, where I discovered that he was very kinesthetic. He liked manipulating objects such as poker chips in a bowl, water in a bottle, sand flowing from one side of a toy to the other, and book pages flipping from one cover to another. He also loved swinging on our backyard swing and playing in the water. Any water.

One day, following his mother’s suggestion, I put him in the bathtub. That’s when I discovered that he also liked to manipulate shampoo bottle lids. He very much enjoyed his mega-bubble bath, courtesy of my Aussie 3 Minute Miracle hair treatment.

The swimming pool was a natural environment for Paul. He pushed off the side and tiptoed across the pool in water so deep he had to tip his head back, his face up, hair fanning out like a dark mane while his blue eyes scanned the ceiling in jerky movements.

And his sudden laughter delighted me.

An interesting anomaly about Paul is that while children with autism are generally known for being resistant to touching, Paul likes hugs. If he is picked up and swung around, he laughs. If he is tossed into the water, he laughs. Unless the water is cold.

One day we went to the pool and found the water cooler than normal. Paul put his foot down on the top step and hesitated. It was only his love for water that let him allow me to lead him down into the pool. He bounced on tippy toes, tried to tip his head back, but suddenly jerked it forward and shook his head. He tiptoed to the side, shook his arms, let out a yell, and tried to tip his head back again. Still too cold. After about fifteen minutes of trying to find a comfortable spot, Paul reached out, grabbed me around the neck so tightly his chin was on my shoulder, and chirped, “Cold.”

I turned startled eyes to my son. “Did he just talk?”

“Yeah. He said ‘cold.’”

“That’s what I thought.”

I marveled at his vocalization, glad to know I hadn’t imagined it. Since he was obviously uncomfortable, I walked up the pool steps with him still clinging to my neck. I tucked a towel around him and carried him into the dressing room, a slightly awkward bundle with his long, thin legs wrapped around me, but a precious one just the same. “We’ll get your clothes on,” I assured him. “You’ll be warm soon, then I’ll take you home and we’ll tell your mother that you said a word! She’ll be so happy.” As I walked through the dressing room, carrying on a conversation with a non-verbal boy, it hit me.

We were used to Paul.

Please tell us about a sweet, fun moment you've shared with someone with autism.

You can learn more about Shirley and follow her adventures on her blog.

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Vcky13 said...

Once Tessa's dad asked her what she had just put in her mouth.

"Reese's Piece." Because it was just one! Tessa's literal perception of the world often has funny results. The first time we introduced her to paper plates, she laughed out loud. Clearly the concept was hysterical. These little moments brighten our family life almost every day.