Persons, places and things: It’s all in the bag

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

A big black duffel bag accompanies my son Colin to his daytime activities outside of his apartment. The bag contains, most importantly, a threadbare sixth-grade year book, a Bible and an atlas — things that assure my son with autism that all is right with the world. Without that bag and its contents, Colin loses his sense of control.

Arland-Fye

The duffel bag got left behind a couple of weeks ago at HDC (Handicapped Development Center) in Davenport, where Colin spends his weekdays in social activities and pre-vocation work.

That day, he and his group went on an outing to see a movie. Afterwards, someone picked him up at the cinema to take him to a doctor’s appointment, which meant he couldn’t return to HDC to get the bag that he calls his book bag.

When Colin realized he couldn’t retrieve his book bag, he became inconsolable. The crisis had a ripple effect. Still obsessing about the book bag at the doctor’s office, he had to be picked up by someone else he trusts to take him to his apartment, where he cried himself to exhaustion.

Overreaction, definitely! A different doctor, his longtime psychiatrist, told us years ago that when unexpected changes occur for a person with autism, that individual’s response is a consequence.

As much as possible, prepare him for change, she told us. That’s been the biggest hurdle in dealing with autism. We can’t always plan ahead for change. Sometimes it just happens — and we deal with the fallout.

My husband Steve and I talked with Colin by phone the evening of the book bag crisis. We tried to assure him that the bag was in a safe place and encouraged him to read his other books (to hopefully get his mind off of the bag).

I didn’t know that the yearbook, perhaps his most precious possession, was in the book bag.

The next morning, Colin and his book bag were reunited and the crisis ended. During a planning meeting for services Colin receives for his special needs, we talked about his success at HDC and also about the supports he needs to thrive in all aspects of his life. We discussed the book bag incident but didn’t reach any conclusions about how we could have helped Colin avoid his meltdown.

Socially appropriate, positive coping skills are among the things I pray for Colin daily. But I know that God expects me to be his hands and feet, heart and soul in bringing this prayer to fruition. Since the planning meeting, I’ve been reflecting on clues from the book bag that could prevent or alleviate another crisis.

On our Saturday night walk after Mass, I asked Colin, now 32, why his yearbook is so important to him. He said he looks at it every day during his break at HDC. He views pictures of former classmates, his regular and special education teachers and his aide. But he can’t articulate his overwhelming need for the yearbook.

I sense God’s nudge to apply my deeper thinking skills to surface an answer. Colin loved school because of its structure and routine. His regular and special education teachers and his aide grew to understand his wants and needs and helped his classmates to accept and support him.

Opening up that book bag gives Colin an opportunity to spend a little time in that long-ago world. My prayer is that all of us who care about Colin will acknowledge his bag of memories, even when the physical bag isn’t present.

(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at arland-fye@davenportdiocese.org.)

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