How four men from the other side of the world ended up on the top of a mountain in New Hampshire–and made an incredible difference in the life of a boy with autism.
It was January 2015 when Yusuf approached his friend, Mohamed, in New York City. A fellow immigrant from Liberia, Yusef knew Mohamed was casting about for a new employment opportunity with meaning and a future.
Yusuf knew the feeling. After arriving in America in 2005, he too had looked for the right job. He had found it at Crotched Mountain School and he wanted to share it with his friend. And that’s how Mohamed found himself, standing in the kitchen of a small apartment in Greenfield, NH one morning, getting doused with a cup of water.
The launcher of that cup of water was JD, a student at Crotched Mountain School who has carved out a reputation as being one of the more challenging young men to ever call the school home. When he first arrived, he was in full restraints, his arms covered in thick padding to prevent him from hurting himself.
JD was assigned multiple direct staff–as many as five at a time. He was given his own living space and, essentially, monitored around the clock to keep himself and others around him free from harm.
Diagnosed with autism and largely non-verbal, JD’s challenges and outbursts arose from a pervasive sense of non-safety and a paralyzing inability to communicate this to the people around him. If he didn’t know you, didn’t trust you, and sensed you were uncomfortable around him, he didn’t feel secure–and if JD didn’t feel secure, he would lash out physically in defense.
JD’s challenges and outbursts arose from a pervasive sense of non-safety and a paralyzing inability to communicate this to the people around him.
Due to his sensory issues and difficulty with crowds, JD’s classroom schedules were staggered so as not to coincide with the movement of groups of students. And, always flanked by his staff, students and others knew to keep a respectful distance.
Very few people could work with him.
Yusuf was one of those few, however. When he started as a Residential Counselor, JD was his guy. But for the first two months there was non-stop fighting. Every morning, from 7 to 11 a.m., Yusuf–no small man–would grip a body-length pad and absorb blows like he was a speed-bag at a boxing ring. JD didn’t know this man. He was new and in his space and he didn’t feel safe. So he fought. And fought. And fought.
But Yusuf never relented. He showed up every morning. He took the poundings. Until they stopped. Because something clicked with JD, within the unknowable complexity of his unique mind: This man is safe.
It’s a spring morning at Crotched Mountain, and we’re all sitting in JD’s apartment. There are four staff people: Mohamed, Yusuf, Ahamed, and Amhdu. Their sagas are wildly different, but they have two things in common: they have emigrated from Liberia and they all work with JD.
Ahamed arrived as a refugee with nothing. He stayed with his brother, couch-surfed for a stretch, slept in his car for a week, worked as a dishwasher, realized he couldn’t make enough money to live working as a dishwasher, went to school, got his LNA license and found himself at Crotched Mountain School as JD’s weekend staff.
Amadou came to the US six years ago on a Diversity Visa. He started in Pennsylvania, worked at a factory and a bakery, learned from his buddy Ahamed about Crotched Mountain, and eventually came to work the overnight shift with JD.
Each one of them has a connection with JD, a relationship that goes far deeper than that of a staff member and a client. Ahamed, in his off time, will hit the thrift store circuit looking for yarn to pack in his trunk and bring back to Crotched Mountain because JD loves to create massive balls of string.
Amadou only sees JD face-to-face two times during his shift when he wakes JD for his nighttime bathroom routines. But these two encounters are immensely important; JD wakes, sees who roused him, recognizes the face, feels secure, and goes about his business. If it were a strange face he met in the dead of night? It would not end well.
That’s when Mohamed shares the most powerful communication tool they have. He interlocks the fingers of his two hands in a gesture of connection.
When Mohamed took that first dousing of tap water, JD was telling him something.
“He’s letting you know, ‘this is my area,’” Mohamed says. “I would follow him in the kitchen every day for a week and he would splash me, but I would keep going with him and he eventually understood the routine. That I would go with him in to the kitchen, he would take a glass of water, drink it, put the cup down, and sit.”
Routine builds trust and trust yields security. Yusuf, Mohamed, Ahamed, and Amadou wouldn’t give up, wouldn’t be afraid. “You can’t show fear to JD,” Yusuf says, “because he can see it in your eyes and then he doesn’t feel safe.”
JD made progress. Eventually, he was able to sit in comfort close to his mother, his staffing dropped to one-on-one and, because of the rich Vocational Living opportunities through Crotched Mountain School, he got a job on campus, collecting recycling.
“He’s an amazing kid,” says Yusuf. “We don’t know what’s happening in his brain, but he can communicate, he can show you love.”
Like everything else he does, JD shows love in his own way. For him, it’s “The JD Head-butt:” when he invites you to lower your chin along with him, and place your forehead against his. You can’t be nervous. You can’t be fearful. But when you do it, when you have willfully entered into this mutually vulnerable posture, you’re in the circle of trust.
That’s when a new world opens. When JD knows he can be in a position where he doesn’t feel stable, where circumstances might become unpredictable, when the world seems to shift under his feet…he can turn to you and know.
Know that Yusuf, Ahamed, Amadou, or Mohamed, his trusted friends will be there to reassure and protect him. That’s when they interlock their fingers and JD sees and understands. The situation is under control and he can defuse the terror that grips him and suppress the instinct to lash out.
Because there’s a simple message in that gesture, more powerful than any verbal communication, which has been learned over the course of many years: