One day early this winter, Vanilla Ice helped Jalen McClary over a big hurdle.
Well, it wasn’t really Vanilla Ice. It was Damar behavior consultant Katie Watkins and Jalen’s mom, Melissa, singing the old Vanilla Ice hit “Ice, Ice, Baby” that did the trick. And the hurdle? Ironically enough, it was Jalen’s fear of walking on icy or snow-covered steps. He simply refused to go down steps if there was ice or snow on them.
For 18-year-old Jalen, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age, this was no small matter. He has to walk down exterior steps at his home to get to the school bus each morning. As a result, when ice or snow covered the steps, he simply didn’t go to school.
And that’s a big deal because, after years of attending school on Damar’s campus, Jalen became a student at Lawrence North High School last October. When he was younger, Jalen would occasionally become too aggressive and out of control to attend public school, so, from seventh grade on, the Damar campus became his school campus.
The goal, however, was always for him to return to public school. And now that he has, he’s enjoying incredible success. He is engaged. His teacher’s rave about him. His fellow students miss him when he’s not there. He is proud to be in classes with general-ed students, proud to be in the cafeteria with the other kids, proud simply to be a high school student.
That’s why missing school was a big deal. And that’s why Watkins showed up at Jalen’s house one snowy morning recently. She wanted to make sure he could get to the bus. Knowing his love of music – especially oldies and rap – she suggested that she and Jalen’s mom sing to take Jalen’s mind off of his anxiety and urge him on. He rejected the first song she suggested because it’s a song he uses in other stressful situations. When she suggested “Ice Ice Baby,” they found their solution. Although Jalen got a little frustrated when Watkins and his mom butchered the lyrics, the song got him moving, and, with Watkins and his mom holding onto him, he made it down those steps and got on the bus.
“The kids on the bus were cheering for him,” Watkins says. “It was great.”
As is often the case with children and youth living with developmental or intellectual disorders like autism, Watkins says Jalen’s progress usually is measured in such small successes. Every success, no matter how small, lays the foundation for the next success, she says. Sometimes it takes a while, and sometimes there are setbacks, but every success can be significant.
Achieving successes can require a wide range of tools and techniques., Watkins notes. For example, as with that day on the snowy steps, Jalen’s progress often involves music. He listens to music to push past anxiety, to boost his courage and to get him through hard times. His musical tastes also help him find common ground with others, as it has with teachers at Lawrence North.
Building on small successes and finding the right tools and techniques for each individual can be a long process of incremental improvements. With Jalen, for example, the process of preparing him for Lawrence North took nearly a year, Watkins says, but it clearly was worth the patience.
The challenge Jalen overcame that snowy morning might seem minor, but it offers a fitting metaphor for what so many children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities experience: With a little help, a lot of patience and the right tools and encouragement, these special people can take the steps necessary to get to the next success … and that will lead them to the next success, and the next one, and the next one.