This photo from last summer is a great one for so many reasons, including its reference “American Gothic.” (That famous pitchfork and farmer painting by Grant Wood.) Despite what it might look like though, the fact is that Owen is leaning on that pitchfork, and any lifting that happened with it afterward was a four handed operation.
Does that matter?
Owen is not what I would call a hard worker. He’s described medically as “low tone.” Low muscle-tone that is, meaning if you put a prop there, he will lean on it. If you try to get him to do something, it seems like there is no strength in his fingers. He requires prompting for most jobs, from washing his hands to dressing himself – anything that isn’t his own idea.
And yet, when he is asked to, he can carry bags of groceries into the house, clear the dishes from the table, or carry a bag of dog food too heavy for his mom from point A to point B. He can do that, and he will do that, and he will often kind of pirouette along the way.
I notice that Owen always comes away from instances of being required to help in a better mood, regardless of how much assistance was needed to get the job done. One irony of his life is that although he does not (mostly) actively involve himself in the lives of people about him, and only rarely makes connections spontaneously, Owen loves to be involved, to be connected, to be required to help out. I think he likes to be a part of things.
Oh yes – he also likes rewards. I learned from Owen’s school therapists to ask, “What do you want to work for, Owen?” Working for something, even the most trivial thing, is like the magic key. The therapists sometimes they offered the plastic food in the toy bin, rather than real food. Very observant. Owen has always loved plastic about as much as I have disliked it. He also is a chow hound though – the point is to find something he wants enough that it replaces that missing drive, something that will help him focus his attention and his attention.
I recently learned that in some circles today it is frowned on to use rewards to motivate an individual with special needs; it is considered demeaning, as if they were a doggie doing a trick. In daycare centers, rewarding with food is not permitted. This surprised and frustrated me, particularly since a law like that ties caregivers in knots, making their already difficult job harder. In the wide world, EVERYONE works for rewards. For cars, houses, power, for glamour, for food, for satisfaction in a hundred ways. True, it’s important how any reward is offered, what kind of language and tone of voice are used. But to disallow it?
Much as he loves his bits of plastic, Owen will also work to be reunited with them. So, if I am feeling strong on an outing, rather than doing the whole job myself in the auto checkout line, worrying that he is wandering off, or stalking groceries in someone else’s cart, I can ask Owen to help bag up. I set his plastic bits du jour in front of him, and tell him he can have them back when he is done. How about you work for your bits Owee? Exactly like real life, where we get our rewards for working, except that I have to draw the connections, and make it happen.
Owen doesn’t find it easy to load grocery bags, it’s a very non-specific job, he tends to zone out, hold the wrong side of the bag, and giggle. But with a lot of prompting and re-directing he will slowly load a bag while I am zapping the bar codes at the other end of the conveyor belt. I know that if we did more often, he would get used to the job, and accept it, and get better at it, as long as there was some reason for him to do so, like those terribly fascinating shards of plastic waiting for him to get it done.
And when he lifts that bag of groceries into the cart and gets his plastic bits back, with his mom’s “high five” and thanks, he seems pleased, connected, and, interestingly, calmer. Which is his mom’s reward.