“I rang the bell and a big black Labrador answered the door. He shouldered his way through the opening, blundered against my legs, and snuffled a hearty, doggy welcome right into my groin. It was the most exuberant welcome I had ever received on a home visit.
“Back, Jack!” A short blond boy grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled him back behind the door. “Sorry, he wasn’t trying to hurt you. He’s really friendly.”
“Yes, I could tell that. Don’t worry about it. I’ve got a husky at home.”
While the boy was juggling the dog and the doorway to let me into the house, I introduced myself to him. “I guess your Aunt Olga told you that I’d be coming to meet you today, to help get things organized for your move.”
“I’m Chris Logan. I’m pleased to meet you.” He made momentary eye contact and shook my hand. This simple exchange was my first contact with the young man who would change my life in so many ways, and whose life I would end up saving.
I was a social worker for a non-profit agency at the time, coordinating services for people with developmental disabilities who lived with their families. Social work is a demanding job, especially in an underfunded area like Mississauga, Ontario. The scrounging I had to do to take care of some of my families took every ounce of my energy and brainpower. But I loved it. I carried about a hundred families on my caseload and I could rattle off the particulars of every client and their family, diagnoses, needs, resources, current issues, favourite foods, and tastes in music without looking at my notes. I ate disasters for breakfast and dunked crises in my coffee at break time. I was headed for a major burnout the following autumn, but in May 2001, I could still leap tall buildings in a single bound.
I was at my desk on a slow afternoon (at least what passed for slow in my job) when my phone rang. It was the mother of one of my clients asking for a favour. Could I call a friend of hers who needed some advice about social services? I didn’t mind helping, especially since this client family had been really helpful with some of my projects, so I told her it would be no problem and contacted her friend, Olga Laszlo.
The next day, I met Olga at her home to discuss a rather unusual situation. We sat in her living room, which had that stiff, just-for-guests feeling, and I balanced my coffee cup on my notebook to avoid making rings on the furniture. Olga, fiftyish and firmly groomed, an administrator in a government agency, exchanged the obligatory pleasantries with me and got down to business.
“I need your advice, Mary, on a family situation. My nephew, my brother’s son, is living in a boarding house in Kingston. His sister’s been to see it and she says it’s a terrible place. We’re very worried about him. What I’d like to do is bring him here and and get him into one of your agency’s group homes. How could we arrange that?”
“Uh, well, Olga, something you should understand from the beginning is that we only serve individuals with intellectual disabilities. Does your nephew—”
“Oh, definitely, he’s been in special education classes for years. He can’t really take care of himself. His sister has been helping out, but she’s in college and it’s a real burden on her. He was living with a foster family and that was fine, but the place he’s in now is just not safe.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, where are his parents?”
“His mother passed away several years ago. My brother lives here in Mississauga, but he’s no help. To tell the truth, he’s an alcoholic. The family’s tried helping him, but that hasn’t worked out at all.” She picked up a photograph in a fancy gilded frame and passed it to me.
“That’s my brother and his second wife with Janice and Chris.” Her face tightened. “Chris didn’t get along well with his stepmother. She wasn’t a very nice woman.”
I scanned the photo. A pretty standard grouping: a middle-aged man, stiff and thick-waisted in his suit, with a short, dark lady clutching his arm; the teenaged daughter in front of her father, smiling resolutely for the picture; and a slight boy, about thirteen, grimly looking off-camera and cringing away from the woman’s hand on his shoulder.
I gave the photo back to Olga. “I think it’s wonderful of you to be helping out this way. I’m wondering … If Chris had a foster family, he’s probably already involved with services in that area. If I were you, I’d start with them for a residential placement, because we have very long waiting lists for group home spots in this region. Chris couldn’t even begin to apply for services unless he was living here.”
“Well, we really want him here where the family can take care of him. Is there any way we can start applying for services now, and then we can move him?”
“Olga, I’d like to help you out, but unless he lives here, there isn’t much I can do. But I really respect your doing all this for your nephew. If you can get him here, I wouldn’t mind lending a hand unofficially until he has some services set up.”
“Well, I appreciate that very much. Carla said you were a very helpful person. Could I get your number in case I have any other questions? You seem to know so much about this business, and it’s all new to me.”
I gave her my card, shook hands with her, and left. I didn’t spend much time thinking about it, although I was a bit curious about whether they would have any luck with the Kingston agencies. I did feel that Olga was applying a bit of pressure, which I had dealt with before and wasn’t bothered by. I come across as a frowzy, middle-aged social worker type, glasses and all: very non-threatening. Most of the time it helps people open up, but for some it’s a sign of weakness. I’ve had to learn to set boundaries when necessary.
A month later, I heard back from Olga. She had moved her nephew in with her family and wanted my help with setting up services for him in Mississauga. I had to admit, I was impressed with her commitment, so I agreed to meet Chris and do some intake paperwork.
A week later, I was back at the Laszlo home shaking hands with Chris. I knew he was twenty-one, but he could have fit in on any high school campus as a sophomore. It wasn’t just his small build or his baby face; he seemed physically young for his age.
He was clean-shaven, short-haired, and dressed in Dockers and a polo shirt. My social worker brain registered excellent social skills and verbal ability, but his body language suggested a natural shyness overlaid with a patina of maturity.
I had almost made it inside by now. Jack had caught the husky scent and was sniffing hopefully at my briefcase.
“Would you like to sit in the living room?” Chris asked.
“Well, we have a lot of paperwork to do and it’s easier to write at a table.”
“We could sit in the kitchen if you want. I can put Jack in the basement if he’s bothering you.” Jack was already halfway to the kitchen, waiting on us and wagging his tail expectantly. I hated to hurt his feelings by having him shut up. I also had a sense that Chris would feel more comfortable with his dog there. An intake interview can be a long and intrusive process. Most of the time, parents or other family members completed the intakes, since my agency served people with intellectual disabilities who often couldn’t answer or even understand the questions. But Chris seemed ready to handle the situation on his own.
Chris led me to an unpretentious kitchen with a small dinette set pushed into the corner. It had a more relaxed vibe than the living room. I spread out my paperwork on the table while Jack found a comfortable position underneath. Chris politely offered me a Coke. I accepted, as I always do on home visits, because it puts the other person in the role of host and creates a bond at the start of the interview. I noticed that Chris didn’t get a drink for himself but sat down across from me and waited.
First, I needed him to sign some forms, so I gave my standard speech, simplified a bit so he could understand it. I was careful to point out the signature lines in case he didn’t read. Chris signed in a large, round, scrawling cursive hand at what looked to be about a seven- or eight-year-old level. I noticed large calluses on his hands as he was writing, on the lower parts of both thumbs and inside the knuckles of his forefingers. He saw me looking and moved his hands beneath the table. “I have a skin problem. I’m putting lotion on it.” I pretended I hadn’t noticed and went on with the interview.
“I understand that you’re going to be moving here from Kingston at the beginning of September.”
“Yes, I’m going to be living here with my Aunt Olga and Uncle Ian and my cousins. My Aunt Olga even got me in a college program. I’m starting on September 12.”
There was a glimmer of excitement behind his expression, and it suddenly struck me that it was a poker face — that his politeness had a wariness about it. Chris wasn’t the only one at the table going through an intake process: he was evaluating me as thoroughly as I was evaluating him.
“Your aunt said you’re living in a sort of a boarding house.”
“Well, yeah, there’s six of us living there,” he told me. He seemed to focus on the forms in front of him as if he could visualize the information on them, but his tone of voice was quite casual, as if he were talking about school activities. “We each have our own room. The rooms are really small. I just have my bed and my TV with my Nintendo system, and a cupboard for my clothes. We share the bathroom and the kitchen and the living room, and the phone and everything. The landlady does the meals and the cleaning.
“It’s not a bad place, but all the other men living there are a lot older than me. They aren’t dangerous or anything, but one of the guys is schizophrenic, I think, and he keeps telling me that I’m messing with his mind. It’s going to be better living here with my aunt and uncle.”
“Before the boarding house, you were living with a foster family?” If another agency had accessed funding for Chris, I needed to see about the possibility of transferring it.
Chris seemed to tighten up at this question. “When I was living with my dad, Dan and Denise lived in the next apartment. Dad moved back to Toronto and I didn’t have any place to stay, so I moved in with them.”
“Did they get money from the government for taking care of you? Did you have someone like me who would come to the house and check on you?”
“Not really. I got money from the government but Denise had my bank card. When I graduated and I was working at Wendy’s, she would cash my paycheque and give me an allowance. I think she got money from my family too. She would get me to write letters and ask them.”
“Did you like living with Dan and Denise?”
“His face became animated for the first time. “I hated it there, but there wasn’t anywhere else to go. I was so glad when I moved into that boarding house and had my own place.”
Then he shrugged and fiddled with the papers in front of him. “My sister Janice visited me, and then Aunt Olga told me to move out here with her until I could find a place near them.”
I was getting the picture. No agencies involved. This father just took off and left his kids twisting in the wind. So why were the relatives getting involved now? That boarding house must have been a serious hellhole to scare them into action.
We got the last of the forms filled out and signed. Chris stood politely and waited as I packed up the mess of paperwork. Jack had apparently found the intake process boring and there was a deep vibrato snore coming from under the table. As Chris walked me to the door, it occurred to me that he hadn’t asked anything. I pulled out one of my business cards for him.
“If you have any questions or need any help with the move, feel free “to give me a call.” This was a pretty standard comment on ending an interview.
He took my card carefully and examined it, then pulled a thick wallet out of his back pocket and filed it meticulously into a large collection of cards, photos, and notes.
I walked back to my car imagining the sniffing-over I would be getting from my husky that evening: “You slut, you’ve been out with another dog!” A jealous spouse is nothing next to a possessive pet.
On the drive back to the office, I kept going over the interview in my mind. Overall, Chris presented as having a bona fide disability. He had the all-important IQ score of 80, which put him in the “borderline” range of intellectual disability and qualified him for government services. But his being identified as intellectually disabled in his teens was strange. Except for cases of brain damage, most clients are identified as “special needs” by early grade school at the latest. His move from North Bay, which may not have had a policy of labelling students, to the Ottawa school district may have accounted for that. Still, Chris had poor handwriting, no money skills, and difficulty organizing information. He would have had a hard time living on his own.
I had a master’s degree in psychology and twelve years’ experience working with intellectually disabled clients. Chris had check marks by all the right items, but, having been trained in intellectual assessment, I also knew where it could go wrong. Learning disabilities or psychological problems can skew the results of IQ tests. Having read between the lines of the school report Chris’s aunt had provided me, I had gotten the feeling that the psychometrist who wrote it had gotten some disturbing vibes about the situation. After meeting Chris, so had I. I just wasn’t sure why.
There was the possibility of an autistic disorder such as Asperger’s syndrome. Chris was obviously well trained in polite behaviour, but he had shown very little emotion during the interview — he had become a bit excited about the move to Mississauga and upset momentarily once or twice, but that was all. He was passive and uninvolved, like someone playing a part. As my mind reviewed autism symptoms, it suddenly hit me. The calluses I had noticed were familiar; I had seen them on several autistic clients who self-stimulated by chewing on their hands.
But an autistic person wouldn’t have been self-conscious about his hands, and Chris had made up an excuse for them. For another thing, he’d glanced at me sideways. In my experience, someone who was autistic either looked at something or didn’t. Their head would move in the same direction as their eyes. There were other subtleties in his voice and movements that should not have been there in someone with either Asperger’s or an intellectual disability.
And he laughed at my jokes! Smiled briefly, anyway, at the right moments. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that appreciating my humour is a sign of intelligence, there is a correlation between intelligence and the type of humour a person understands. I tend to have a dry sense of humour; it’s surprisingly handy with nonverbal clients. One girl who was quadriplegic and unable to respond verbally cracked up when I made a pun. That requires abstract reasoning. Intellectually disabled clients usually look confused or ignore my jokes, and autistic people look at me like I’m crazy. While Chris wasn’t exactly the life of the party, there was a sense of humour in there somewhere.
Actually, that was my whole impression of Chris. There were a lot of things “in there somewhere.” Somehow, those things were disconnected from his day-to-day functioning; hence, the diagnosis of intellectual disability. Most likely there was some combination of learning disability and psychological disorder going on. But, if something looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, any bureaucracy will call it a duck. And Fate had put this odd duck on my caseload.
As I focused on finding a parking space, one final impression stayed with me. It was something in Chris’s eyes. I remembered an odd bit of science trivia about wells: the depth and narrowness of a well shaft blocks out ambient sunlight so you can look up in the daytime and see only black sky. In fact, there are telescopes designed on this principle — they produce a perpetual view of the stars by being deep enough to create an artificial night. That was the look in Chris’s eyes: the look of someone gazing up from the bottom of a very deep well. ”
Excerpt From: Mary O'Sullivan. “Lazarus Heart.” iBooks.