Breaking through a young girl’s personal prison.
by Penny Smith
“C’mon, Tonya, just a few more bites,” I coaxed, trying to catch up to her mouth with the fork as she dodged from side to side. Eventually she reached out and guided the fork to her mouth while staring vacantly into space. At last Tonya accepted the last few bites, swallowed, and then promptly regurgitated the whole meal back onto her plate.
Sighing, I tossed a napkin over the plate and scurried to the trashcan outside. This was nothing new. Tonya, an autistic child, deposited several meals a week this way, and I could never tell when it would happen. I’d learned the hard way not to eat my own meal while feeding her.
Eight-year-old Tonya lived in the residential program for mentally challenged children where I worked. I was 34 years old when I left my small rented cottage and a government job to work with special needs children. The eight children now in my care were developmentally disabled, but only Tonya suffered with autism.
Tonya required constant supervision and help in the simplest self-care skills. Most of her efforts were feeble attempts to help me tend to her needs. For example, she would hand me her comb, toothbrush, or washcloth but never attempt to use them. I tried various ways to encourage Tonya to use the skills she obviously already knew but refused to practice.
At first Tonya’s bizarre behaviors puzzled me, since I’d never even heard the word autism before. Flicking the light switch off and on or repeatedly flushing the toilet occupied Tonya by the hour. Her favorite preoccupation was to toss a ball into the air, clap twice, then catch it.
“Toss the ball here, Tonya,” I’d coax. “It’s fun. Look! Like this!”
I tossed the ball to her, but Tonya seemed to live in a different world. Her play was abnormal. She had no meaningful relationships with others and rarely expressed an emotion other than fear or panic.
At times shouting was the only way to interrupt her ritualistic patterns. Then she would shield her face with her arms as though protecting herself. I wondered what trauma lurked in her background, and I longed to penetrate her cool barriers.
“Tonya, look at me — look at my eyes,” I’d beg. But Tonya’s dark, veiled eyes wandered restlessly, skipping, gazing above and beyond reality. Is there a child behind that vacant look? I wondered. Where are you, Tonya? What are you thinking? What do you feel?
But Tonya wouldn’t tell. According to her case history, Tonya’s speech had developed to the two-year level, yet she communicated solely with gestures and grunts, tantrums and tears. She’d point when she wanted something, but because of her failure to focus, the guessing game would begin.
“Help me, Tonya,” I’d urge. “Do you want this? . . . or this?” And on it went until I hit upon the right object. If I didn’t interpret her gestures quickly enough, she’d kick and scream or even bang her head against the wall. I longed to hold her, but she evaded all closeness.
Tonya’s aversions were complex. The first time I tried to wash her hair, she put up such a struggle to free herself that her knee collided with my stomach, sending me face down into the laundry tub. After that, I didn’t attempt the ordeal with fewer than three other people to hold her.
Her fear of water turned every bath into a nightmare. At the sight of the partly filled tub, Tonya stiffened her already rigid body, sloshing sudsy water everywhere. No amount of soothing quieted her hysterical screaming until she was dried off and removed from the bathroom.
One day, as she smeared her dolls with her spittle, it struck me as odd that Tonya played frequently with her spittle, often mixing it with strings that she scratched from the carpet or her clothing, yet she was scared to death of water.
A plan started to unfold. I remembered Jesus said that even a cup of cold water given to one of His little ones was like giving it to Him. Since Tonya’s problems were numerous, I would tackle them one at a time, starting with a cup of water — and Tonya’s fear.
Cup of help
My first step was to drop some coins into half a cup of water and let Tonya fish them out with her fingers. “Get the nickel, Tonya,” I urged. As she responded, I added more coins to the cup.
After a few days, Tonya brought the cup to me when she wanted to play. We had reached a milestone. Next, I used the cup to pour water into a basin, and Tonya had to dip her hands in order to get the coins. Eventually we graduated to a bucket, and Tonya was up to her elbows. It was a day to celebrate months later when Tonya, clutching her cup, entered a partly filled bathtub without force.
One hot summer day I decided to take four of the girls swimming. As Tonya and I sat in lawn chairs watching the other three girls in a water battle, a phenomenal giggle escaped Tonya, sending a shiver of delight through me.
Suddenly she slid off her chair and moved toward the pool with her cup. I grabbed Tonya’s sand bucket, casually walked to the pool, and sat on its edge. Tonya moved yet closer. Filling the bucket with water, I poured it over my legs. By now Tonya lingered at my elbow, so I patted the concrete.
“Would you like to sit with me, Tonya?” I asked.
She sat down, holding her legs straight over the water. I dipped the bucket into the water again, poured it over me, and repeated the process until Tonya reluctantly put her feet into the water. She gasped at its coldness, pulled them out, and then dropped them with another giggle.
“Do you want to play with the bucket, Tonya?”
Much to my astonishment, she dropped her cup and held her arms out to me, staring vacantly into space. I slid into the waist-deep water and drew her to me. For the first time, Tonya wrapped her arms around my neck as I cautiously eased her from the pool’s edge. Clinging to me, she twined her legs around my waist and dangled her feet in the water.
Miracle of fun
I bobbed gently. Holding my breath, I worked my way through the water, bobbing a little more vigorously. Tonya’s giggles rippled and rolled into breathless laughter. Exhilarated, I jumped up and down, submerging her shoulders, and then popped out of the water. The other three girls, clapping and splashing, had formed a circle around us.
“It’s fun, Tonya!” I cried over and over. “It’s fun!”
All at once, the word burst from her lips with newfound ecstasy, her eyes dancing with impish joy. “Fun!” she cried. “Fun!”
The miracle of fun mushroomed like an atomic explosion, blasting Tonya’s fear into the clouds. After that day Tonya began to speak again in one- and two-word sentences. She laughed. She learned to dress and feed herself and tend to her own toilet needs. But best of all, she often crawled onto my lap to be held.
Cup of joy
In spite of her prison of autism, the changes in Tonya’s behavior thrilled me. I learned not to underestimate the expressions of laughter, of fun, or of a simple cup.
Only a miracle could have released Tonya from all her fears. It came through a cup of water that God used to teach her to laugh, to love, and to touch until her cup of joy overflowed.
What is Autism?
About the Author
Penny Smith (“Tonya’s Cup”) has worked with developmentally disabled children and adults for over 20 years. She has been engaged in a teaching ministry both at home and abroad, speaking at churches, retreats, and conferences. In addition to ministering on radio for over 25 years, Penny has been published numerous times in over 50 Christian publications, including Guideposts, Mature Living, Psychology for Living, and Lutheran Journal. She lives in Grantville, PA.