By Amy Cooperman, OTR/L
My true love as an Occupational Therapist for the past 16 years has been to work with children and adults whose diagnosis cannot be trimmed and squeezed into a neat little black-and-white category. These people live in a gray area, often alone in a world which can only be entered with the stealth movements of a master detective. I view myself as an invisible detective of sorts, a little Casper ghost, weaving around their perceptions, staying long enough to find a clue to attach them to the world. This, to me, is the art of therapy and what I live for as a therapist.
IMPRNTING PHYSICAL REALITY
Around seven years ago, I began working in a prestigious school for severely autistic adolescents. On my first day there, I was struck, not so much by the look of these children, since they looked quite typical. It was the sounds and movements which were different. There was singing, humming, laughing, reciting scripts and songs verbatim, hand flapping, and rocking– a 3-D symphony of sorts. However, to me, their behaviors seemed quite external, like an envelope, hiding a little treasure inside.
In this facility, I ran cooking, craft, sensory groups and worked individually with students. The projects I developed were very special to me. They were created with my deep belief that tools extend the hands to imprint physical reality. And if you can make an imprint on physical reality, then it is proof that you actually exist. I believed that these students desperately needed to know that they existed, and I was there to help them do just that.
However, there was a cost during this process. As my family can vouch, I was obsessed! I saw needs on so many levels that I often could not sleep at night. Silver mixing bowls, wooden spoons, sewing needles, burlaps, colored threads, ceramic tiles, grout paints, sandpaper, drills, screwdrivers, eye hooks, and nails, all came cascading wildly into my dreams.
In the dead of night, inside those living dreams, I somehow analyzed the goal of the group, found a project, sorted through the materials, and broke down the task into steps. By the morning, I had my project…voila! Although this process did not always happen in my sleep, it did happen often enough that it made me wonder if this was help from Heaven.
As I made my morning rush to the store to find my materials, a memory from my past blew into my conscious mind, with the dust of 30 years behind it.
Flash back to the 70’s, when I was an art student in college. My specialty at that time was making art from found objects. I had decided to make puppets from these objects with the notion of bringing something that looked dead and forgotten back to life. At the Salvation Army, I found a pair of baby shoes in a bin– so forlorn, yet charming. I took them home and threw them into a pile of other interesting finds. Suddenly, a lamp fell on the floor, casting a shadow on the shoes. That’s when I saw it…whimsical faces embedded in the leather folds. “Aha, my next puppets!”
Eventually, these became “snail” puppets; the shoe was the face and the lace holes held up the wire spring antennas. I found myself “combing the aisles” at the hardware store for just the right spring, hook, or bead for my puppets.
MEETING THE WORLD THROUGH OBJECTS
And here I was now, 30 years later, introducing my autistic students to the world through objects. And I was just as fussy about their projects as I had been for my own. I was not happy with store-bought kits with flat stencils and squashed pom poms.
No, my projects needed three components: 1. Salient materials, interesting to look at, touch, and manipulate. 2. They had to be motivating. 3. They had to have structure, with enough flexibility to allow for creativity.
One favorite was sewing. I used regular needles, yarn, burlap, plastic, canvas, and colorful fabrics. We made picture frames; aroma pillows, and eventually sewed a drawstring bag using individual sewing machines.
And then there were the wood projects. We used hammers, nails, screwdrivers, and power drills. To everyone’s shock, we never had a problem using these tools. My students were motivated to create and were patient, careful learners. We made wind chimes with bells, name plates, plaques, and marionettes.
As I probed and dug for skills and talents, I was determined that every child would be able to create something with their hands with minimal assistance from an adult. Which they did!
IGNITING THE CREATIVE SPARK
The one project which cut across all skill levels, as well as being the most adaptable, was flower arranging. Materials were a styrofoam cube and artificial flowers. The styrofoam made a decisive “squeak” as the student pushed the wire into the foam. The flowers were vibrant colors, shapes, and textures.
Every student at every level had interest in this project, which was adapted to higher motor skills levels using smaller flowers, glass jars, marbles, stones, and water beads. We then pushed to higher cognitive levels with counting, sorting, identifying and naming parts of flowers, and describing the parts to our project.
While I worked with my students’ exploration and understanding of objects in the world, I still quietly searched for that creative spark; the ability to look at an object and turn it around in the imagination to create something new: the baby shoe phenomenon.
One day, I was working with a verbal student on a kit. It was a PVC “pipe tree” which entailed assembling PVC pipe pieces onto a base and matching the design to a template (rather boring). Suddenly, he said, “That looks like a camel!”
“That’s the spark” I thought. He saw it, turned it over in his imagination, drew it and labeled it.
And then I looked at my non-verbal students. Perhaps they saw the same things, however, could not express it. Was that the reason why they stared at the light, tilted their heads, twiddled their fingers in front of their eyes? And then I flashed back to my baby shoes. Was my work with found objects a way for me to make my own existence real?
stay tuned for part 2…