Note: An asterisk will be used to protect the privacy of the facility I used to work for, due to the HIPAA laws.
I was ready for a change in mid-2013. I had just come back to work after having a mini-stroke, otherwise known as a TIA (trans-ischemic attack). My new neurologist had advised me to find ways to alleviate the stress in my life. I had been a Mental Health Associate at an inpatient mental health facility for just over two years, and I was not ready or willing to leave that job, so I needed to find a way to change what I was doing. I loved my job. However, going to a different unit every day, sometimes every four hours, was getting to be a little too stressful, especially when I was getting a bit burnt out on working with adults.
In the two years I had been working at this facility, I had started working with kids, some with emotional and/or behavioral issues, some with developmental disabilities. There were even a few kids with both. I didn’t start out with any experience with kids at all, but as I worked more with them, I realized that I enjoyed my work with them. It was refreshing to do something different, and it turned out to be a lot of fun- for the most part. There were a few bad incidents- I’ve been kicked in the eye, had a stereo cord hit me in the face, broken my left big toe twice (and in the same way both times), and had a couple of kids run off on me (thankfully not leaving the building).
A full-time Mental Health Associate position opened up on one unit- *2West. It was my favorite unit. The staff was great, and the kids were challenging but fun. I applied for and got the job. It took a while for the transfer to complete, but I was ready to start in October 2013. I was a lot happier to know where I was going each day. I was able to get to know the patients, and that helps because they feel more comfortable around people they see constantly. Kids with autism thrive best when they are in a consistent routine, and that includes caregivers. If they don’t have the same caregivers all the time, this can contribute to anxiety and sometimes negative behaviors. This unit and facility try to avoid either when possible, so they staff as much full-time staff as possible. I got better at learning the patients’ triggers, which helps a ton when they were angry. If you’ve got a 6’4″ kid about to explode and he can’t talk, it helps that you know his triggers to try to calm him down in time. This can prevent injuries to him, the staff (you and your co-workers), and the other patients. This can also help keep things from getting torn up.
I didn’t know a lot about autism before I started working at this facility. It wasn’t something that I thought about a lot. After this experience, it is never going to leave my mind. I learned so much about autism and how it is treated- with and without medications. There are behavioral approaches like ABA (applied behavioral analysis), and this facility offers equine therapy. One of the teachers (now retired) has horses, and she brought them in along with the Occupational Therapists to allow the children to ride them. I also learned that people aren’t always very open-minded about autism, the causes and accepting it. Some of the patients were essentially left at the facility by their families, and they never visited them because they didn’t want to deal with a child with autism. I do understand that it is difficult, because I do have a son on the spectrum, but I would never leave my son. Some people believe that autism is caused by vaccines, other environmental factors, or other causes besides the official- it is an organic brain disorder. This means if a person has autism, it is something that happened in the brain while the child was in the womb. There is no cure, and as of now, there is not a certain medication to treat it. There are a variety of medications to help with some of the symptoms (like medications to help with sleep, because many people with autism are horrible sleepers- my son is one of them) but there are studies being done to create medications just for autism. I’m waiting for these medications to come out.
Autism acceptance is a whole different topic. It is hard to accept that your child has a lifelong developmental disorder, especially one that is considered “invisible.” Each parent is different and takes their own time to come to terms with it. Some parents never do and refuse to deal with it. Many parents, however, embrace their child for who they are and choose to walk the path with their child. Extended family may need some education because grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. may not know as much as parents about autism. They may think that there is a cure, or that “it can be spanked out of them,” etc. Parents of kids with autism need all the support they can get- I am very happy to say that I have a lot of support. I started out with almost no support from my husband, but now we are on the same page, and he is super supportive of our son.
One of the best things about working with kids with autism was watching the little victories- along with my co-workers, I helped kids with potty-training, learning how to dress, writing, eating, and a lot of other things. I saw quite a few long-term patients leave the facility able to do much more than they were able to do when they came in. That was the most rewarding part of my work. This kind of work will change you- I believe that it changed me for the best as a person and a mother.