Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Different World

Karen McDaniel and Charles Jordan after a church service
 Mornings have become a lot more exciting for breakfast, Magnolia Jordan smiles and cheers as her son, Charles Jordan, successfully pours himself a bowl of cereal. “He can do it,” she says. “He’s afraid of wasting the milk but its okay. The more I make him do it, the more careful he becomes.”

Charles suffers from a mental health disorder known as autism. Jordan first saw signs of the disorder in her son when he was just a baby. “I thought he was lazy,” she says. At 2-years-old Charles didn’t walk and abstained from activities at home and at daycare.  “I had my daughter a year after Charles,” Jordan said. “She was walking at seven months and playing and he’d just sit and watch her.” Jordan allowed her daughter to hold Charles’ hands and lead him, but he feared that he’d fall. It wasn’t until Charles was almost four-years-old when he’d learn to walk without aid.

One day the director of Charles’ daycare asked Jordan if she found it odd that Charles wasn’t developing as the other children were. She suggested that Charles see a doctor and Jordan knew the director was right. At Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, tests showed that Charles had brain damage and doctors diagnosed him autism, warning that his development would be slow.

Today, Charles is 42-years-old and his 61-year-old mother worries what will happen to him when she is gone. Spending time with Charles over the last 42 years has definitely helped to build the strong relationship Jordan shares with her son. “He likes to go out,” Jordan says. “So we’ll go for a ride or go play Bingo.” Also, “It’s quite an experience to know when you’re child is sick and he can’t tell you. When I’m sick, he knows too.”

Autism is a disorder that impairs one’s ability to communicate and interact socially, and it also restricts and causes repetitive behavior in its sufferers. Signs of autism are present in children before they reach the age of 3.

Karen McDaniel of Milwaukee has been working with autism sufferers for 20 years as a private caregiver for the city of Milwaukee, as well as a Handicapped Children’s Assistant for Milwaukee Public Schools. McDaniel’s passion for working with autism sufferers goes beyond the classroom reaching into her community. About 8 years ago at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, McDaniel and the Jordan family met for the first time and their relationship has grown ever since.“I remember when our church travelled to Tennessee to fellowship with other churches,” says McDaniel. “I could tell Charles was aware of being somewhere different and he really seemed to enjoy it.”

Certified in special education, McDaniel spends six hours a day, Monday through Friday, working with autistic teens attending the Milwaukee High School of the Arts. Her job entails helping her students to reach their academic goals as well as enhancing their everyday living skills. “One of the most challenging parts about doing my job is spending the whole day in their world to get anything accomplished,” says McDaniel during a phone interview. “A lot of them are nonverbal so you have to tap into their world.”

Working with autistic children isn’t an easy task. “It’s challenging to get our students to handle transitions and change,” says McDaniel. “They do what they like to do, so if we do anything, like a fire drill, we have to prepare them ahead of time.” In preparing for changes, such as a fire drill, McDaniel says she talks to her students about the upcoming changes throughout the entire week. A lack of preparation can mean meltdowns and tantrums.

Handling a meltdown means making the person feel as comfortable as possible of the situation, or by modifying the situation altogether. “They won’t do anything,” McDaniel says about her students who have had meltdowns. “One student I have doesn’t like the texture of paper so she’ll just tear it up.” To make the situation more comfortable, McDaniel says that she uses a dry-erase board with that student instead.

Some autistic patients have more meltdowns and tantrums than others. Jordan stated that Charles doesn’t have many. “He’s not violent and he’s really patient,” she says of her son. “He pushed a girl once but it wasn’t intentional. He’s generally very calm.”

Trust is something people suffering from autism have issues with as well. “They have to trust you in order to be productive,” says McDaniel. Instead of just walking up to her students, she holds her hand out to see if they’ll reach for her. “Autistic people aren’t prone to being touched. If you want to hold their hand, reach your hand out to see if that’s what they want, or they may think you’re going to strike them.”

“If something happens to me,” Jordan says, “It’d be hard to know who would take care of him because he doesn’t like going with everybody.” Jordan suffers from health issues, and besides a close friend that comes over to help with Charles from time to time when she goes to the hospital, Jordan has little help. “Sometimes I’m sad because none of my family can communicate with him.” Charles has three sisters, but he isn’t very close with any of them.
Jordan is proud of Charles and the accomplishments he makes, no matter how small. “I’m glad when he learns different things. I’d go to his schools and they’d show me things he did and I’m glad because I thought he wouldn’t be doing anything.”

To show Charles how proud she is of him, Jordan says that she claps her hands and tells him that he’s done a good job. When asked what words of advice she would give to future parents of autistic children, Jordan answered, “It may not be a big thing but anything they do that’s different, applaud them and it makes them happy.”

For McDaniel, her students’ reaching milestones makes her glad as well. “What inspires me to continue doing my job is the progress that I see my students making; when they can write their name or when they’ve mastered their goals,” says McDaniel. “I know that I’ve made a difference in the kids’ life by being patient and caring and understanding.”

McDaniel’s patience, caring, and understanding of people suffering from autism has to made a difference in Charles’ life. “She’s been very pleasant and she likes Charles,” says Jordan of McDaniel. “She’ll talk to him and we’ll have outings and she’ll play with him. She’s very nice and he likes people that take time with him.”

“The world of autism is an extremely challenging world,” says McDaniel. “I enjoy helping to make their lives as normal as possible.” To do this, McDaniel says that it takes a lot of nurturing, and of course, going into their world and making them feel like they are somebody.

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