Our Philosophy and Mission

    The Whole Self Center’s philosophy suggests that every human being is more than a body with a brain. When caring for a child – a whole person - we are experiencing the creative spirit present in that child & in ourselves.

    • As we remain interested in exploring creative possibilities for the individual in the moment, we are more open to experiencing something new, such as developing a valuable skill we never knew or thought was possible.
    • In this way, we are less likely to stay stuck in repeating our old, inhibiting habits & behaviors.
    • By living this understanding with individuals with autism, we continue to become better able to respect & support children for who they already are, deserving of love & attention simply for being.

The Whole Story - Natural Guidance

by Stephen C. Hartman, LCSW-C

It’s January 11, 2009, and I’m sitting in Venice Beach sand, 20ft from the Pacific Ocean shoreline – listening to the surf. It’s winter back in Annapolis. I’m in California attending 5 days of training at an extraordinary agency called Jay Nolan Community Services… but today is Saturday. I’m not always interested in hearing other people ramble on about how often and where they travel, so bear with me for mentioning it’s almost 80° here; however, this story is relevant to the first issue of BEINGWHOLE, the newsletter of the Whole Self Center.

We take so much for granted, not having to give much thought about how to travel to new places, let alone a different state. As adults we go about our lives knowing we know where and how to buy our favorite foods and ask for directions if the map’s confusing. Life happens, and we go about our “activities of daily living” without being terrified of the unexpected.

I watched as a 14-month-old toddler waddled reluctantly toward the edge of the rolling water. He was just terrified enough not to get too close to get his shoes wet. At first he refused to get down from his mother’s arms. It probably didn’t support the toddler’s already compromised sense of security that the family’s Jack Russell terrier on the end of Dad’s leash kept barking and chomping at every wave. I suspected Dad was ready to implement the “baptism by fire” strategy and force his son to touch the water. Dad almost grabbed him as he said to his wife, “I’ll take him.” Mom resisted and the toddler wrapped himself tighter around her like a baby chimp.

Seconds passed and Mom gently stood the boy on the sand. He freaked, but not totally. Instead, he planted himself firmly in front of the water and put his hands by his side. I noticed as he began rotating his wrists as if he were feverously adjusting TV knobs. Because I care for children with autism, you can guess the first thought that came to my mind. As a caregiver, after a while, your autism radar becomes second nature.

I invite you to pause and take a breath so you can calmly consider something that might seem strange coming for a director of an agency that serves people with autism. I’m certain that these parents didn’t sit at their breakfast table and declare that “today our treatment goal for Johnny is to desensitize him from the ocean”. They likely planned a walk on the beach with their son and their dog, not thinking much about the natural tasks and duties of being a parent – mainly to provide guidance and support. The Johnny-got-terrified-of the ocean moment just happened, and his parents handled the moment… in their own style.

The little boy calmed down. Then, once he was at least standing near the water on his own, Mom and Dad didn’t force him to go any further than he could that moment… and they didn’t walk away from the natural opportunity to experience something new either. This was a casual walk on the beach that spontaneously happened. It wasn’t a teachable moment either; it was just life happening.

The Mom, Dad, and the Jack Russell started to walk toward the boardwalk, and Johnny followed behind them. Once Johnny noticed a clump of seaweed, he suddenly had an issue with transition - being so close the ocean was more fun than he thought. He was determined to get his mother’s attention as he pointed to the seaweed and looked toward as if to say, “Are you kidding? I’m not leaving now… this is WAY too important.”

Dad told his wife to “go pick him up”. Mom had another approach. She walked over, bent down, and quietly said, “It’s time to go”. And when that wasn’t enough, she said, “We’re going to get you a balloon.” He turned and looked up at her, smiled, and said, “Get a balloon?” And that was that.

I doubt that these parents will have to develop the hyper-vigilant parenting skills that mothers, fathers, siblings, and caregivers realize are required when guiding and supporting children with autism. Out of the sheer need to keep the child with autism safe, a walk on the beach isn’t often casual – if ever in some cases. Of course, the parents of this “neurotypical” child, i.e., a child without autism, have to be mindful of the needs of an active and curious 14 month old, but they can pretty much relax as they enjoy an afternoon with their son. Parents and caregivers of people with autism on the other hand, at times, have to keep 99% of their attention on the person’s needs. This is especially true while out in the community where the unpredictability of the environment is in constant contrast with the unpredictable needs autism dictates. That remaining 1% of attention doesn’t leave a lot of energy for us to take care of ourselves, and for this reason it is extremely necessary to develop two things (1) a consistent series of supports so that the person with autism can enjoy variety in his/her life and (2) a means to assure that more than just a few caregivers can support the person to interact and share experiences with others. The time it takes to develop these supports varies from person to person, and the fine-tuning of the development never ends… and why should it? Would any of us want to be told they couldn’t continue to learn and grow?

Watching the children we serve over the past 5 years as an agency has helped us realize at a “gut level” that children with autism grow up to be adults with autism. Moreover, all of us are adults far longer than we are children. For this reason, we are in the process of becoming a Department of Developmental Disabilities Administration provider of services for adults with autism. The reason I’m writing this article in front of the Pacific Ocean is that I am attending five days of training at Jay Nolan Community Services, Inc in Mission Hills, California. I intend to replicate many of the programs that the amazing staff at JNC provides to the 500 children, teens and adults they serve. We will keep you informed of this and other projects in future newsletters.

When you really think about it, it’s true that the only thing the weather does is tell us what to wear. Each of us can ask, “What is life putting in front of me right now? And then, like the little boy in front of the ocean, we can make even the smallest effort to face what’s in front of us. At any given moment, each of us has the option either to remain stuck listening to the “personal story” our brain wants us to believe and defend, or we can be even slightly bit more interested in “The Whole Story,” the story written by the creative nature in each of us that can turn the page, and move us forward.