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122 APRIL 2009
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Cathy Copeland

Successful work with challenging children requires the ability to look beyond deficit and deviance to find slivers of hope and normalcy in even our most difficult students Cathy Copeland shared some time with an autistic child.

I knew Ben for only a few months, but will remember him forever.

He was seven years old and rather small for his age. He had ordinary brown hair, a few ordinary freckles, ordinary arms and legs, and an ordinary seven-year-old mischievous twinkle in his big, brown eyes. However, this little boy was not at all ordinary. I was a school counsellor the first time I met Ben. I entered his classroom quietly with the intention of meeting each student. As I looked toward Ben, a broad smile spread across his freckled face. I spoke to him, but he did not respond. “Ben doesn’t talk,” his teacher said.

I watched from a distance and introduced myself to the other children in the class. Ben moved to a corner of the room and occupied himself with his fingers, a ritual that I would witness every time I visited him. He was able to move his pinky fingers into an “L” shape across his other three fingers. He’d done this for so long that he could make this move with no help from his free hand, though at times he would use his free hand to force his pinky finger further and further back.

This seemed to be a necessary activity- perhaps it restored some degree of order. Perhaps it opened a door behind which he could retreat to some safety. I do not know. As time went by, I became a familiar face to Ben; and he increasingly tugged at my heart. His puzzled eyes would stare into his teacher’s eyes as he cocked his head to the side. It was as though he was pleading for some understanding- as though he found himself locked inside a world far away from the rest of us, filled with fear and anger and distrust. Although his voice was used mostly for screaming and squealing during his fits, it was in this time of “pleading” that his eyes begged, and a small little-boy voice said with questioning this one word: “Ah-Kheem? Ah-Kheem?” He used his hands to communicate, but it was a self-styled method with only a limited number of motions indicating hunger or thirst. Ben did not play with the other children; and if anyone approached him, he would walk away – isolating himself and ignoring any activity around him.

On one occasion, I brought my guitar into his classroom. My intention was to engage another student; instead, Ben walked over to me. As I sang and played, he placed his small hand on the strings and cocked his head to one side. He stayed only a moment, but it was a moment in which something as simple as music connected the two of us. In an instant he retreated again – to that unknown world occupied only by Ben and his demons.

There were times when Ben would bite himself or bang his head against the wall of his desk- as though his anger and frustration collided and a battle raged within. There were other times when he was loving and seemed to seek a human touch and a gentle, comforting voice. His teacher began to understand something about this need and would stroke his arms as they stretched across his desk. Almost as a lullaby, she would softlv repeat. “Ah-Kheem ... Ah-Kheem.” Suddenly, this was a different seven-year-old. He became still and often put his head down, seemingly mesmerised in a dream-like calmness. But even these times were filled with uncertainty. His behaviour could become erratic without warning; one second he was hugging his teacher, the next, he was biting, kicking, hitting, or spitting on her. Who was this enemy within? And what was the War all about? No one knew- least of all Ben.

I grew that year, as did Ben and his teacher. Ben was able to learn some hand signs typically used by those who are deaf. With much patience and repetition, he was able to place various shapes into their proper spaces, as well as to pick up his toys and put them in the correct bins. His teacher grew by adding many skills to her repertoire and a tremendous amount of knowledge to her understanding and ability to work with autistic children.

As for myself, I witnessed a compassion and caring that few others in the school would ever have the opportunity to see. Often bitten and beaten, and usually frustrated that she could not get inside of this tormented little boy and calm the storm, this very special teacher persevered. She was able to develop a “knowing” of Ben- not an understanding- but an abiding connection achieved by a oneness that they were able to share only once in a while. It was as though “Ah-Kheem” meant something, but only to Ben and his teacher.

Although I will never really know what they knew, “Ah-Kheem” has a special place in my heart, as do Ben and his teacher. For me, “Ah-Kheem” means “Help.” Help me as I am. Love me and accept me. See me as I am, not as you are; and realise that I need calmness in a chaos over which I have no control.

As a counsellor, this one little word taught to me by one small, autistic child sums up the humanness we all seek in an inhumane existence.

So from me to you, “Ah-Kheem.”

This feature: Copeland, C. (1995). “Ah-Kheem”. The Child Care Worker, 13, 3. p. 11.

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