Sometimes in this work, we are touched very profoundly by the children and families we have the honor of helping. One day I was scheduled to assess a five-year-old boy. The boy had a muscular disorder that made it very hard for him to learn to talk and walk. I watched him exit the car and walk with difficulty up to the office.
When I introduced myself and asked his name, he did not respond. Instead, he hid his face behind his father's legs. I figured out pretty quickly that talking was not only hard but embarrassing for him. I briefly tried to engage him but noticed him withdrawing more. In order to do a thorough assessment I needed him to feel safe and to connect with me.
I wanted his experience at our office to be a pleasant experience and not a frightening one. I decided to take him to feed some of our horses. Sometimes interacting with our horses helps children feel calmer and more safe at our office.
The boy put the feed in the buckets then stood on the gate and watched the horses eat. He moved from horse to horse, silently, gently petting each one. When we finished, I heard him say to his dad, "More." We left the barn and found more horses. He walked up to each horse, and he petted each one. "More," he said and more we did until we were finally out of horses to pet. Building rapport with someone is a delicate process.
It started to rain, so we walked back to the office to talk. Even though I knew talking was hard for him, I wanted to set the expectation of talking and doing things that were a little difficult. I asked him about his favorite things. He did not answer, and when his parents encouraged him to answer, he cried. I could tell how uncomfortable he felt. I offered him a piece of paper for him to draw his favorite things on. He turned his face away from me. He did not want to draw. He said, "Go home."
His father patted his back and told him they weren't going home. The boy cried some more. It was clear that this experience was agonizing for him. His parents continued to encourage him to communicate with me, but he would not. I did not want this to be an unpleasant experience for him or for his parents. I tried everything I could to help him feel safe, but nothing I tried worked.
Finally, I wondered aloud what he was going to be for Halloween. I asked him yes or no questions figuring those would be easiest for him to answer. "Are you going to be Spiderman?" I asked. He responded with the smallest whisper, "No." "Are you going to be Darth Vader?" I asked while making a confused face. Another low whisper, "No." I felt I wasn't connecting with him, so I decided to be silly and asked, "Are you going to be a bird?" He responded with a louder, "No." "Are you going to be a horse?" I questioned. He giggled, "No." Are you going to be a bee?" I inquired as I danced around with my arms outstretched. He smiled and said loudly, "Nol" Success! I had finally made a connection with him and he felt safe.
His parents had paperwork to fill out, and I knew it would be hard for him to wait. I did not want to lose the progress we had made. So, I threw my hands in the air and made a sound of exasperation. "I forgot to show you the baby horse!" I said. He looked at me with his huge brown eyes and said, "Baby horse?" I asked, "Do you want to see the baby horse?" "Yes," he said excitedly.
Together we traveled out into the mud. He talked in short sentences the whole way. "Long way," he said of the walk. "Rain," he said of the dark clouds. "Where baby?" he asked of the baby horse. When I pointed to her napping on the ground, he said, "Not see baby." When we finally arrived at the fence, he climbed up on the fence to see the foal. Usually, she is a tan color, but that day she was muddy from the rain. I asked him what color she was, and he said, "Brown." I smiled. "That's mud," I said. He replied, "She dirty, dirty, dirty!"
The foal walked over to the fence and gave the boy a good look a
nd a sniff. He squealed with delight. A few drops of rain started to fall. "Run!" he commanded, and we ran. "Faster!" he screamed, and we ran faster. I ran slightly behind him and told him he was too fast for me. He laughed, and his eyes twinkled. When he stopped running, he held his hand out for me. "That fun," he said as I took his hand.
We walked back to the office hand in hand. Both of us beaming. His parents could not believe he was holding my hand or that he had talked non-stop to me. He told them about the foal "Baby, blue eyes, she dirty, dirty, dirty." When he left, he waved and smiled at me. I thought, "More! More! More!"
Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash
*This story is a client composite and does not represent an actual individual client*