Sometimes I get that sudden feeling that a client and I have cracked it, that we are really getting there. At other times it is a feeling that slowly creeps up on us.
Over the last couple of weeks I realized that I should not be concerned about the work with one of my clients. We have just been taking things at a waltz tempo, and that takes a lot of time. We have worked together for several months with steps forward and backwards and to the side, all of them having a role in the forming of the relationship that we developed. I had been beginning to wonder whether we would ever make it, until very slowly a hand slipped into mine as we walked outside, and I realized then that we had cracked it.
We are still waltzing but perhaps no longer dancing the slow English version.
As many readers will know I am an art therapist as well as a conductor, art teacher and artist. I wish I had a name that included all of these roles, although as a conductor I usually wear most of the hats at once.
To my great pleasure I often have the privilege of working in my art therapy hat, with a few strings from the other bows of course attached.
For two years I worked with a very creative young man who is autistic. It was a successful two years, working together in his team. He is so creative that during his sessions with me he created enough artwork to exhibit at a local gallery. This young man developed so well with the different activities that he was involved in that he was able to move on last summer to a new group and to new experiences with new people to encourage and guide him on his way.
With this move I was left with a gap, a gap in my working week and in my life. I had a Tuesday afternoon with no clients and I was a conductor with no art therapy sessions. I missed it very much. My Tuesday afternoon art therapy sessions had been a highlight that I enjoyed very much.
During those two years I realized that the developments in how I use conductive pedagogy and upbringing had been enhanced by my work as an art therapist an awful lot, and of course vice versa. The use of art as a means of communication, put together with my knowledge of and experience in conductive pedagogy and its practice really did work very well. My clients and I spiraled on upwards and outwards together.
Well worth waiting for
I kept it no secret that I actually left my Tuesday afternoons free of any sessions for a while longer in the hope that they would be filled again with art therapy. I turned down several opportunities for regular clients and conductive groups for a few months until I received the phone call I had been hoping for.
I was so pleased that I could give a positive response, that I could answer that yes, I had some time free and could start the same week!
A new client came my way, shortly before Christmas 2010, to fill the gap. He is a ten-year old boy who is autistic.
We worked together for many weeks. For all this time this child has certainly filled the Tuesday afternoon gap. He really keeps me on my toes. But it has taken a long time before we have filled the art therapy gap and the creative gap in the week. It took several months for us to get to know each other.
Although we have been working together for almost six months it was only about three weeks ago that I began to really feel that something was moving forwards. I began to have that feeling that I described at the beginning of this posting. It was not a sudden feeling that we had cracked it; it was more like that creeping-up one.
The time came when one day, when my client had taken a break to look out of the window, that he asked whether he could go outside. This was the first time that he had directly asked me whether he could do something. It is difficult to praise this child but I made sure he knew how pleased I was that he had asked me.
As we still had not cracked it, or so I still thought, I was really unsure of how our relationship would stand up to the test of going outside. Would this young man try to prove that he was still the boss by running away or would my gentle reassurance be enough to show him that we were in fact a good team working together and that we should stick together?
As we walked out of the door to the playground where the Kindergarten children were playing I sensed that my client was a little bit wary, at the same moment his hot, sticky hand slipped into mine for the first time.
I took this opportunity to explain to him that, as he was older and bigger than these three-and four-year-olds in the playground, he must take great care not to frighten them by being too boisterous and too loud.
This seemed to give my ten-year-old client all the confidence that he needed and he left my side to play amongst, but not with, the littlies, politely introducing himself to all those he encountered in a way that they could not quite comprehend but that did not frighten them.
He stayed calm outside for fifteen minutes and still calm said that he would like to go inside again. Once inside he asked if we could play a game and then read. I think that was when I realized that things had changed.
What do we do? How have we slowly cracked it?
I work in a room that was really much too large when we were beginning to build up a relationship and trying to find the best way of organizing our time together. My client had far too much space in this room. I had known right from the start, that there were too many opportunities, in cupboards and on shelves, for changing activities. I knew that I would have to do something about this.
At the beginning I had set up about six different “stations” where we could sit or stand to paint or to play skittles, read or make things, climb or play ball. Sometimes this worked, at other times it just made my client very active, and he would not settle to anything.
I made a change…
My client changed schools, he became more approachable, he settled down more quickly after entering the room and he began to talk to me. I decided it was time for me to change my approach too so that I could build on these small developments.
I made the room smaller by strategically placing the tables so there were no great spaces to run in. I set up just one table for all activities, for us to play games at, to read at or draw and paint at. I made sure that I had everything that I might need at an arm’s reach. If ever I had to move away from the child, to fetch something, he was gone or had moved on to do something else, either physically or mentally, or both. I wanted to prevent this. I was hoping that we would learn to bring one activity to a conclusion and to clear away before starting something new, and that we would make all of the decisions about our activities together. My client knew the layout of the room well enough by now to know what opportunities there were. I made sure that he knew that he only had to say if he had an idea for our session and we would try it out.
…and he changed too
On the same day that I felt his hand in mine as we went outside we had been sitting at the table reading a magazine and I had been drawing. I had still not succeeded in tempting this young lad to draw but I was ever-hopeful.
I planned to focus my attention on his love for and interest in cartoons. I had divided two papers into eight sections, one piece for him and one for me, and then I started to draw the characters that were featured in the magazine that we were looking at. It was a health magazine for children, featuring Uncle Donald and his nephews.
Being a Disney-fanatic and knowing just about every character that was ever drawn, my client was hooked. He loved the fact that I drew whoever it was he was reading to me about and I began to ask him to help with the colouring in. At first this did not interest him but he did begin to write little messages on my drawings and made speech bubbles to write in. Eventually he asked for a paper of his own and drew a picture for me of one of the other people who works with him.
We have built on this style of working since and eventually last week he came in and immediately asked for scissors and paper and made me a paper-giant with no legs that we proceeded to colour in together. This now hangs on my door and this week he proudly went up to it and stroked it and smiled. I hope we will make legs for him after Easter. I now have a collection of little drawings and writings, enough that we need to make a folder for them. Another job for after Easter!
I realized early on that my young client needed regular breaks from guided work. At first these breaks were longer and more frequent than our actual working time. They were also not very constructive breaks. My client would retreat into a world of his own, become agitated and sometimes throw balls and rings around the room.
Now he has learnt to tell me if he wants a break, he usually says: “Just wait a minute” as he moves over to the bench beside the bookshelves.
I have recently encouraged him to choose a book and bring it back to the table so we can read together as an alternative to him remaining in his own separate world. And it works!
He reads to me
His style of reading reflects his behavior when we first met, fast and breathless, and sometimes I have great difficulty to understand it. While reading he leaves out words, often the more difficult ones to pronounce.
As we read we learn how to take slow, deep breaths. We learn how to make the pauses when the punctuation tells us to and to speak clearly to the end of a sentence. It is a great bonus being foreign as I can motivate my client to speak clearly so that I can understand the story too.
I think everything in this young man’s life has happened at top speed until he has had a classroom assistant who stays with him in the afternoons too, when school has finished, to organise the rest of the day with him. Someone who has started to put the brakes on.
As things slowed down in the rest of his life they slowed down with us too. I no longer need to move all the furniture on a Tuesday afternoon in order to prevent the running around, as the pace of our sessions is slow enough now. If my client wants to run he asks to go outside.
The breaks in our last session were less frequent and constructive in fact there were few. We draw and paint and speak and write and the breaks have become the changing of activities, clearing a space and selecting new materials. Or asking questions about the Disney films that I have seen.
I am thrilled to be included in the breaks, in the bits in between. Sometimes a conductor with an art therapist’s hat on also needs a break!