Monday, June 30, 2008

Miss Bonnie & The Runaway Bunny

Say the word and what do you picture? Dustin Hoffman in “Rainman”? A child unable to speak, moving back and forth, isolated in their own world? You’re not alone. There is more awareness now versus decades past of what autism is and whom it affects, but it is still seems to mystify. I have learned that autism is like a spectrum; it manifests in different ways like light refracted revealing colors of the rainbow. On the “higher functioning” end of the spectrum is Asperger Syndrome, named for a German psychologist, Hans Asperger. This was the particular color that bathed our family the spring of 2003.

I barely had time to finish the details in the play room upstairs before the first home visit of the child psychologist assigned to observe Wylie. We had been in the house about a year and a half; yet, household projects take time and money. Both had run a bit short. The impending visit provided just the sense of urgency required to paint the walls and complete the playroom. I had spoken with Bonnie Karlin on the phone prior to the visit and immediately warmed to her. She had a calm and soothing voice—a nice quality in someone specializing in children. And, she came highly recommended. My mother had been working as an administrative assistant in Student Services for several years. She was familiar with most of the staff in the suite of offices they all
shared. Bonnie was among those. This put me at ease and I remember feeling relaxed the day she came to “play” with Wylie.

Bonnie joined us on the floor; Wylie stayed in my lap at first and avoided direct eye contact, of course, smoking away…but, after a few moments he began to venture out of my lap and engaged with Bonnie. She asked him to tell her a story. She watched while I put a hand puppet on and interacted with him. I let him sound out some words and familiar objects in one of his books. All the while, Bonnie took notes on her paper without looking. (Try it—it’s not easy!) She asked me about Wylie’s normal behavior at home—his eating habits, play times and how he interacted with his siblings. I shared openly about his distaste for certain things (like haircuts!) and how regular noises—the garage door opener, the vaccum, a flushing toilet—would terrify Wylie and he had learned to preemptively cover his ears (which is hard to do while smoking your fingers!)

Eventually, Bonnie had Wylie in her lap listening to a story. He shared blanket blue with her and even extended his arm for her to rub—this was a favorite past time of Wylie’s only a few people were trusted to do it.

The plan was to observe Wylie at home and then in his preschool environment; I was to complete a very detailed questionnaire and we would meet again and put all these disparate pieces together. Before Bonnie left that day, she mentioned that Wylie reminded her a bit of her own daughter. In particular, she shared about her daughter’s favorite book, “The Runaway Bunny”, and that somehow Wylie was a bit like the bunny in the story. I could tell after our visit, Bonnie was exactly the right person to try and figure Wylie out. What a blessing she was. Of all the psychologists that could have been sent, we were sent one who knew precisely the color of the rainbow radiating from the playroom. And, she’d have known it even if I hadn’t gotten the walls done.

The preschool visit was a horse of a different color. Bonnie called us afterward and asked if she could make a second “in home” visit. She just had too much to reconcile. To her, Wylie appeared a completely different child at the preschool. It was there that she first experienced the folded-up-like-a-rock Wylie, the non-cooperative when asked to switch activities Wylie, the extremely detached from the reality of the class room Wylie. This disturbed her. Why was he so different? There were moments she noted where the Runaway Bunny emerged: during sing-a-long time when Wylie was allowed and encouraged to move to the music, and when he was on the playground. But, overall, the pieces from the preschool seemed to belong to a completely different puzzle then the pieces she had gathered in our own home.

After the second home visit and the scoring of my questionnaire, Bonnie came to a conclusion. Wylie demonstrated signs of Sensory Integration Dysfunction and tested as borderline “at risk” for Asperger Syndrome. (The subtle nuances of the diagnosis are important and for those interested, a lengthy note is appended). Bonnie recommended a special day class for Wylie and a referral to an Occupational Therapist for further evaluation of his motor skills. We spoke at length on several more occasions about our next step. Bonnie was certain Wylie would best learn in an alternative environment with smaller class size and intensive language therapy. In addition, she encouraged us to use stories called Power Cards to help Wylie overcome his fear of haircuts, the dentist, etc.

It was a lot to process. For the first time in a very, very long time, I wanted to drop like a rock.

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