Working with the Mentally Challenged: Are you Crazy?!

Not many people look at having a sibling with special needs to be a gift by any means; I, on the other hand, fully recognize that I would not be where I am nor be who I am now without having a brother with autism. Daniel, my brother, is a year and a half younger than me; what this implies is that I have never really known a world without special needs. I have always known that some people in this world have been given challenges that others will never be able to understand or coop with. Granted, when I was younger I never in my days had thought about being in a career that circles around special needs. Back then, I thought “why the hell would I do a crazy thing like that?” My whole life has been about special needs, and when I was younger I wanted nothing more than to escape it. Overall, it is funny how things change and fall into place over the years.

Whenever I tell people that I am a self-employed provider for persons with special needs I always get asked, “How did you get into that?” It’s quite simple really, easy money when I moved out. I was making $5 per hour at the time for babysitting my brother, and I was making $7.50 per hour at Marshalls; not exactly my dream paycheck at age 19. My parents recognized this and informed that since I had moved out I was then able to provide services for my brother professionally and get paid $18.28 per hour. The switch was easy for me; I emailed the hiring agent at the cooperation that my brother received funding for and explained my situation. Considering that I was only going to be providing services to my brother I didn’t need to take any of the necessary certification courses. Within about a week’s time I was an official self-employed provider with a comparatively substantial salary to what I was making at my 9 to 5 job. Although I didn’t quite Marshalls for another year, having that extra cash on the side was highly motivating. Of course, at the time, I still had no intention on this position becoming my full time job let alone my future career.

A few months later, Daniel’s speech pathologist therapist Emily asked if I was interested in taking on more clients. My response was…”Umm yes please!” More money, more easy work, needless to say I am more than happy to get some more of that! However, this new client was not my sibling and was not a client of my current contracting agency. No problem, when money is on the line I can figure out a way to make it work, and so I did. I called this new clients agency and found out that I could easily join their contractor’s team by doing a few things. First I needed to sign some paperwork, done and done. Then before I could start providing services and get paid for it I had to take the following courses: First Aid/CPR, Universal Precautions, HIPPA, and ISSP. Really this was the hardest part because I was in college, studying to be an English major, and the courses were offered during the weekdays. So that took me about three months to complete and then I received my certificate for independent contracting for Rocky Mountain Human Services, formally known at Denver Options. Thankfully the family I did this all for were still interested and anxiously awaiting me to begin working with their 13 year old autistic son, and so I did in December of 2010.

The first month of working with this new client went very smoothly. Not because he had the same challenges as Daniel, no not at all. The thing that a lot of people seem to think is all people with special needs are the same. If you mean different from you, than ya sure they’re all the same. However, I have never met a single person with special needs who behaved or reacted in the same way as the other people I know, and it was the same with this client. But he was nice and sweet at first; being sociable and happy to see me because he liked that I was a new friend to hang out with him. After a while though, every person starts to slip back into old habits.

This client was a self-abusive, screaming, 13 year old autistic boy who was taller than me. Thankfully, from Daniel I have learned how to control violent behaviors; however, the screaming was something I really struggled with. It kind of just made me instantly pissed off and considering he did it uncontrollably when he was beginning to in fact lose all control of himself, there was really nothing I could do about these feelings but put them aside. This client was a lot more severely autistic than Daniel. How I like to describe him as is an unreliable narrator, like the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.”  He starts off his story sounding pretty normal then slowly you realize that everything he’s telling you does not sound right, and by the end of the story you’re like “okay ya, you are a crazy man and I shouldn’t have trusted what you were telling me.” It’s the same way with this client. He will tell you over and over again that he wants to bounce on his ball and that he isn’t hungry, but then you look at the data that had been recorded that day and you realize he hasn’t eaten since breakfast. Chances are that he is hungry; the problem with this is that it’s with everything, he doesn’t recognize when his body needs something and this will cause him to emotionally unregulated. And keeping him regulated was the hardest thing for a long time.

After about 6 months though, I started making really good progress with keeping him in check. My client’s parent’s say I have a very natural ability when it comes to reading their son. I don’t know if I would personally call it “natural.” In reality, because of Daniel, I have been built to be successful with this group of people. None the less, this family and two of my colleagues whom I had the pleasure of working with for creating intervention tactics for our client, had recommended me to two other families who needed a provider for their autistic child. I gladly accepted and gained another 2 clients to my work load, and thusly I quit Marshalls after 3 years of working at their establishment.

It was at this point in my life where I began to think about being in the field of special needs permanently. Really it all stemmed from a conversation I had with my Father at dinner one night. He pointed out the fact that being an English major and desiring to be a professor after graduation might be an unrealistic idea. For one, I really had no interest in even working in the field of English. All I wanted to do was teach and I knew that I didn’t want to teach kids or teenagers, they all would annoy me too much to make it worth my while. So this was when my gears started turning. I thought to myself that “…the special needs field will always have job availability, and I already have work experience. And I already have been volunteering in this field since 2007. And I am already well connected with a lot of big players in the special needs world. Maybe I could be something a little higher-up than a provider. And make that my profession” I was very motivated to make this happen so I began my research and began talking to the professionals in the field that I knew to see what their jobs were like. First I thought speech pathology therapist, but then I realized that that took a lot more school than some of the other therapy disciplines. So then I jumped to occupational therapy, and observed a couple of them as well as some other disciplines that year while I was volunteering.

Adam’s camp is the place I volunteer with, and it is has become my second family over the years. I have known this camp since I was 10, first being a camper myself with the siblings program while my brother attended the therapy camp program. Then later as I grew up I knew I wanted to be a part of it all. This camp is a great tool for the special needs community and its families, and it was here that I finalized my decision. I was volunteering with the pathfinder’s program, therapy camp for children 5-9 years old with special needs who are not independent, and it was my first time volunteering with this particular program. My job as a volunteer is to keep the therapists running on time, keep the kids under control, keep things clean, and help out whenever possible. With ample opportunities during the therapy week, I was really shown what exactly all the therapy disciplines do. I saw the music therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, art therapist, and speech therapist perform goals for the camper in their own specific disciplines unique way. Although I could see the good in all of the disciplines, none of them really spoke to me. Instead I thought about my client’s behavioral specialist and how she runs the show and organizes how certain behaviors could be extinguished and ultimately be overcome. That was the job I wanted, and that’s what I still want to do.

From this point forward I have worked towards my goal. I added psychology to my education and continued doing all the work in the field that I had been doing. Through the years I have gained more understanding, more clients, and more knowledge. Since then I have continued to make my “Autism Awareness” Facebook page bigger and better. I even started my own blog to give advice and aid to the special needs community and the public as well. Working with special needs may not have been what I set out to do in life, and sometimes it does get really hard to have so much of my life dedicated to special needs, but I know that this is what I was meant to do. This is what I was built for, this is what I can do better than most, and this is what I need to do to better my community and better the world in the process.

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