The man, the myth, the legend: there just isn’t anyone quite like Liam.
“The Hamburglar has struck again.”
Perhaps a phrase relayed with short breath from one young fast food employee to the other as they surveyed the gaping hole in their cheeseburger lineup (especially if said employee was prone to dramatic flair). That’s the effect an up-close-and-personal encounter with Liam a.k.a. “The Hamburglar” could have on a person.
Liam got that nickname because of his propensity for bolting across the street, running into the nearby fast food establishment, leaping the counter, and helping himself to as many flame-broiled sandwiches as he could cradle in his enormous arms.
No one dared stop him either; even at an early age he was a force of nature, a whirling dervish of instinct and emotion, a fusion reactor trapped in the body of a teenager. Today, he is a 17 year-old student at Crotched Mountain School, built like a linebacker with arms the size of birch tree trunks, a moppy-headed blonde with the eyes and smile of a cherub. A cherub who could rip up industrial flooring with his bare hands.
There’s no one quite like Liam. His dual diagnoses of severe autism and obsessive compulsive disorder are a combustible mix, a unique compound that can prompt Liam to act out with intense behaviors that can end in personal danger or, at the very least, enough property damage to make an insurance adjuster think a F5 tornado just passed through Greenfield, NH.
“Everything about Liam is big,” says Kelsey Shannon, Speech-Language Pathologist for Crotched Mountain School. “His challenges, the way he interacts with the world, his personality, it’s all big.”
Liam first arrived at Crotched Mountain School in 2015 and his reputation preceded him. The teachers, staff, and therapists were given a dossier filled with info to help them prepare for his arrival—but there were still huge surprises in store.
Like how Liam feels compelled to squeeze himself into tight spaces because he likes the physical pressure; or how things out of the ordinary—pictures on the wall, new decorations, stuff jutting out from the ceiling—do not play well with his OCD and will immediately get torn down; or maybe it’s his love of impromptu swims in the lake, which led to support staff getting trained as lifeguards. The curveballs were plenty and with Liam’s Abrams-tank-physique, they were coming in with serious velocity.
His autism and OCD constantly conspiring against him was made even more volatile by his communication limitations. Like so many non-verbal students on the autism spectrum, behaviors and outbursts almost always boil down to the inability to properly transmit feelings, emotions, needs, and desires.
When something new, like a poster, ends up on the classroom wall, and the internal OCD siren wails out a five-alarm warning, not having the words to communicate leads to paralyzing anxiety and Liam is suddenly lost in the labyrinth of his own mind—and down the poster comes.
“You can know a lot about autism and OCD but he throws it out the window,” Kelsey says. “Liam is one of the most unique kids. No one has seen anyone else like him before.”
THE GAME PLAN
So what do you do with someone like Liam? For starters, you watch. You see what he likes, what he dislikes, what his triggers are, how he responds to those triggers, what are the rituals he uses to start and end his day?
Then you write. You write like crazy. You fill your notebooks and hard drives with data. And then you deploy whatever is in your teaching clinical arsenal, as low-tech as a piece of a paper with a big red X on it (signifying STOP! DANGER!) and as high-tech as an iPad speech device. The iPad in particular has opened a new world for him, giving him the capability to digitally communicate his moods, when he would like to take a break, what activities he would like to try, and much more.
“Liam can now accurately express his feelings,” Kelsey says. “He tells us when he is frustrated, happy, silly, or hungry with full independence, which is huge for someone with autism.”
For Kelsey and the Crotched Mountain crew it all came down to trust, the fulcrum of the Liam Support Structure. If he grew to trust the people he was working with—teachers, direct support staff, clinicians—then he could be persuaded to stay away from the risky behaviors, usually by flashing that red “X.” The trick is to give much to Liam, allow him to do things that were out of the norm, but not dangerous to himself or anyone around him.
“You can know a lot about autism and OCD, but he throws it out the window.”
Like picking up a box of Legos and dumping them on his head, a favorite activity of his during class. The plastic-brick cacophony combined with the unique sensory impact of dozens of objects raining down makes it a go-to behavior in the Book of Liam. But no one is in danger. Nothing is damaged. And, even better, Liam has come to understand that there is a consequence to this action; he can dump those blocks, but it is expected that he clean them up. And he does just that.
“As long as it’s safe, I try not to discourage his idiosyncrasies,” Kelsey says. “I’m going to help him and as soon as you acknowledge that and meet him where he’s at and let him know there’s no reason to pick a fight, you’re reaching him.”
Not every day is a slam dunk. That’s just how it goes at Crotched Mountain School. The only thing predictable is the unpredictable. But Liam is getting there. He’s making progress, hitting goals, moving away from the incidents that have made him part of Crotched Mountain lore.
For example: every week Liam has the option to earn a special incentive by showing a safe behavior. These behaviors are tracked on a weekly calendar, which allows him to see his progress in real-time. If he hits his goal, he and his staff drive to McDonald’s, where they’ll pull up to the drive-thru and Liam can use his iPad to place his order.
He usually gets a hamburger.