Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Story.

Here is the story of how a little boy named Malik changed my life.

I had never lived anywhere in my life besides Lincoln, NE, when I moved to Flower Mound, TX for my freshman year of college. I would be attending the University of North Texas college of Music to pursue either Vocal Performance or Music Education, I hadn’t decided yet. I needed a job, so I applied at the first daycare center I drove by in Flower Mound. Working with children has always come naturally to me. My mother has a home daycare, so I often say I’ve been working with kids since I was one. Nothing in my years of experience with children could have prepared me for Malik. Before the end of the year, I would be completely changed, not only with my intended vocation, but as a person.

On my first day at Legacy Learning Center, I was introduced to the little boy who would change my life. Malik Rashad was six years old when I met him, and was a chestnut-skinned little boy sitting at a black Dell computer, second from the left of four, at a desk in the back corner of the Schoolers’ room at Legacy. The center manager, Mr. Charles, gave me a guided tour of the building and introduced me to Malik as “Malik is Autistic. This is was he does.” I never would have guessed that this six year old boy who didn’t even turn his head as he glanced at me out the corner of his eye, would teach me not only about working with Autistic children, but about myself.

Working with Malik taught me to have unending patience. One of the struggles Autistic children face is their difficulty in communicating. There was a disconnect between what Malik would be trying to express to me, and what my brain interpreted. At first, when I would ask him simple questions and he would give nonsensical answers, I thought Malik simply didn’t understand what I was asking of him. It wasn’t until many rounds of “what’s wrong?” answered by a list of characters from Peanuts, or every dinosaur imaginable, that I learned how smart this child was. Malik understood exactly what I was asking him, but because his brain had trouble processing the emotional or spatial questions, he didn’t know how to tell me what was bothering him. Malik would retreat back to the topics that were comfortable to him, his favorite characters from Peanuts, and his favorite topic, dinosaurs.

Sometimes to get a simple answer out of Malik, I would have to listen to half an hour of what I first considered to be rambling, where Malik would try and divert my attention by asking me “Is Charlie Brown? Is Linus? Is Lucy? Is Snoopy? Is Peppermint Patty?” I learned to hold my ground and not give in to the frustration (or laughter!) building with each repetition. The patience I gained over my first year of working with Malik, surprised both he and myself. I don’t believe Malik had ever had someone be so consistent in working with him, and this helped us develop a very special connection. This patience is something I have carried with me to this day.

One of the struggles in working with Malik, was the tantrums he would throw. At first, these episodes occurred on a daily basis. The angry child seemed to explode for no reason, throwing toys or running around in circles, yelling and knocking over toys and bookshelves. Dealing with these constant outbursts made the occasional tantrum-free day seem like a great blessing. Each “normal” day was something to be celebrated, and every moment of peace was a moment to be relished. In these times of calm, I learned to appreciate the little victories. I discovered how a seemingly small triumph, such as the first time Malik’s eyes met mine, could bring such joy.

That first moment of eye contact was not just a fluke; it meant that Malik and I were making progress in our communication. Malik was finally connecting to me! The good days were celebrated, and every time Malik would go through the day without a tantrum, there was a complete shift in his attitude. Malik felt good about himself, proud even, and little victories became not so little after all. Taking joy in the small happinesses made the days go faster and made the steps backwards, the bad days, much more manageable.

Before too long, Malik and I were a team. I set up a sticker chart to reward his good behavior, and he helped me out by playing by the rules to earn his prize at the end of the week. Instead of going a day without a tantrum, there were tantrum-free weeks! By Christmas break that first year, Malik had made such progress it was hard to believe we had only started working together a few short months before. I flew home to Nebraska to spend the holidays with my family and friends. When I returned to Texas after the four weeks of winter break, I had no idea what was in store for me. Over the break, the other teachers at the center hadn’t continued my work with Malik. The boy was back to throwing tantrums almost every day, a huge step back in Malik’s progress. I had to think of new ways to get him back to the level we were at before the break. In my experimenting, I would discover a method that would impact not only Malik’s behavior, but the course of my life.

During one of Malik’s tantrums, I found myself in a panic. I didn’t know what he was trying to tell me, and he was just as frustrated as I. Over the past few weeks, he had begun not only throwing toys and yelling, but digging his nails into my arm and kicking my legs. The only thing to do in these situations was for me to physically restrain him, so he did not hurt himself or the other children. On this day, I had carried him to the front office and was rocking him back and forth trying to keep him from breaking the glass door down with his angry feet. After two hours of this, I was at my wit’s end. I didn’t know what to do to help him and I was on the verge of tears.

Without thinking, out of desperation and perhaps in subconscious prayer, I began to sing, "Amazing Grace", to Malik. As soon as he heard the familiar hymn, Malik suddenly stopped thrashing about. He automatically quieted, and laid his head down on my lap and let me scratch his back while he listened to me sing. It was the most precious moment of my life, to date. Because of our discovery, I began to research the effects music has on children with special needs. I had never heard of Musical Therapy, and now it is my intended major. I learned methods of communicating musically with Malik, and his progress resumed its original pace.

When I moved to Texas for my freshman year of college, I assumed I would miss my family, maybe date a little, meet new friends, and learn a lot about living on my own. Taking a job at a daycare center seemed natural to me, an easy way to make enough money to pay my bills, and still have time to work on my voice lessons and homework. I never would have guessed that a little six year old boy would profoundly impact my life. Malik taught me to have unending patience, to appreciate the little things, and mostly importantly, he helped me realize what I want to do with my life. I have a special spot reserved in my heart for the little boy who changed me. That year I set out to teach Malik how to communicate and grow, and he wound up teaching me.


Author's Note: Nothing I could pen or type will ever do him justice. This boy changed, and in a way that is far too complex for me to describe in this little blog, saved my life. I will be forever grateful for the blessing he was and continues to be to me.

"Amazing Grace"
"Little Wonders" Rob Thomas


Julia said...

what a lovely story. I work with kids too, so I know how rewarding it can be, but I've never worked with special needs kids. But I've always thought music education/therapy should be part of every curriculum that involves kids,special needs or not.

SuperHusker17 said...

That's a really cool story. I actually have a cousin that is going into Music Therapy over at the University of Iowa. He's always been big into playing musical instruments since his grandfather was always in a band. I haven't talked to him a whole lot lately but I know he really enjoys it.

Vanessa said...

Julia, yes yes yes! Music is so terribly important to child development & unfourtunately it is often the first programs to go when budget cuts are made!

Mr. SuperHusker, I didn't know that U of I had a Music Therapy program...I'll have to check it out, I've been looking for a program to transfer into. Thanks for the food for thought =)

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