Monday, Nov 14, 2016
By Marilyn Rogers
I’m always amazed by what a sheltered life Mark, my Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) child, has lived. His interests are very narrow and his autism makes change and outreach a real challenge.
I met Mark three years ago at which time he was a painfully shy middle school student who ate alone every day. Due to the trauma of being removed from his home and placed in two different foster homes within two months, he felt very displaced and unstable. Mark was almost obsessive about his belongings and private space. He didn’t understand what was happening to him or why. This resulted in him withdrawing even more and because he had been so sheltered, he didn’t have the social skills to connect, relate and communicate with his peers. As his principal put it, he was just in his own world. I chose to work with Mark because in his story, I just felt there was more to this child than was on the surface. My belief was that middle school is when children really start the trajectory of where they are going based on school work, who they befriend, work habits and goals.
I didn’t feel like Mark had any of those working for him, his only hope was to go ‘home’ which was not an option. He likes movies and like any 14-year-old boy, is always hungry so that is how we began. We have shared many movies and many meals together. To give Mark a basis to connect with his peers, I wanted to provide more experiences that kids his age are typically interested in. When Mark transitioned to high school, I told him he had to join two clubs at school and I would help him with any requirements they had. He chose the robotics and computer club but he quickly lost interest because as he put it “they just sit around and play video games” and the robotics club disbanded due to lack of participation. We made an agreement that we will do something he likes then something I like. He wanted to take piano lessons, so I reluctantly joined in. He participated in the recital and I was a drop out. He was so proud that he was invited to participate and I was not.
I also am a big proponent of teams and teamwork based activities. I thought participation would give him a built in group of peers to interact with, familiarity outside the classroom, and instill an ability to work with others to achieve a goal. A lot of conversations revolve around Bay Area Sports teams and I wanted him to have a basis to join the conversation. We debate what movie we want to see but then we will drop in a sporting event. We’ve been to the Earthquakes stadium, a SF Giants game, a SJ Sharks Game and many other local events. Mark recently expressed interest in the school basketball club so I was excited to tell him we had tickets to the Warriors game at SAP, Courtside! I told him I’d never been and was very excited to see Steph Curry up close and personal. His immediate response was “Who’s Steph Curry?” Once we arrived, I explained basketball, the three-point shot, and the Warriors recent history and before long I heard him chanting “CUR-RY CUR-RY” with every shot. We had the best time and as he put it “Steph Curry looked right at us!” Providing new experiences for Mark has really helped him be open to new ideas and discovering what he likes. It has also helped him be able to relate to his peers and reach out to initiate conversations.
Mark is now participating on his own team of sorts – a workshop through the Tech Museum that teaches him and other teens coding and robotics. He had a big smile on his face when he told me, “there’s someone else in the program from my school and I saw her and said hello.” We have a long way to go but I’m so proud that he tries so hard, continues to use his experiences to reach out and works just as hard on developing social skills as he does working on his 4.0 GPA. We share his common goal ‘to have friends and to do well in school’. He is amazing and has overcome so many obstacles. I can’t wait to see where his path takes him.