To elope, in the learning method of Applied Behavior Analysis (and probably others that I’m not aware of), means to run away as an escape. When I first heard this word used that way, I thought it was strange. I’ve heard the term elope and thought – how romantic, two people running away together to get married…sigh. Apparently, there’s another definition that’s much more of a downer. Eloping is a common behavior among autistic children. Sometimes they just get up and try to run away from you, or the situation, to try to avoid something difficult.

M, one of my coworkers, suggested in exasperation that someone write a short story about what happened at work on Friday. I hope to eventually do this, but for now I’ll just share some thoughts.

I’ve mentioned before that I teach at a school for children with autism. Our class has four students and four teachers. A one-to-one ratio sounds pretty sweet, but with kids who are aggressive, self-injurious, destructive, and frequently attempt to elope, this many staff members are very much needed.

Without going into specifics, on Friday afternoon just before lunch, every single kid in the class went into action. It was as if they had all gotten together in some clandestine meeting over juice boxes and decided to perform every behavior in their repertoire. One kid was close to breaking down and hitting a teacher, another kid had a violent tantrum and tried to swipe everything off of the desks and cabinets, another kid kept laughing and falling on the floor on purpose, and the fourth kept crying and yelling “Be quiet!” at himself. On their own, each of these behaviors is manageable and there are specific procedures for dealing with them. In succession, however, it’s rough – putting it mildly. After lunch I found myself standing next to A, with him seated in a chair facing the wall taking a “break” (he goes to his break chair when he has a tantrum, basically a time-out for him to calm himself down). As he cried, bit his wrists ‘til they were red and threw his body back and forth, I found myself wondering: how can I hope to understand this person’s mind when I can barely understand my own? Can I actually ever understand the way his mind works? Can I effectively teach him without fully understanding his experience?

Thank God or Whatever, I am not autistic, and I have no way of changing around the neural circuits in my brain to make myself autistic. I cannot force myself to have a tantrum (although I may sometimes feel that I WANT to have one). I cannot bring myself to want to throw everything in my apartment on the floor. I definitely don’t want to bite myself. The kinds of pleasure I could derive from any of these things anyway would not be the same feelings that A gets from them. The students in my class have taught me that each individual’s experience in this world is unique and new. There has to be a different way for me to relate to these kids (I hope). That path remains to be seen. Or, maybe there isn’t a way for me to ever really know their minds. The most I can do for now is sing “The Wheels on the Bus,” smile and cheer my head off when I see A complete a task that was difficult for him, and stand by him during his tantrums with a tranquil face until he’s calm.

Once, and only once, for about ten seconds I tried to do tonglen for A during one of his tantrums. I’m not really sure what I was thinking – Rookie mistake. There was way too much going on, internally and externally, for me to really work with any of my feelings. I think it was more for me than for him at that instant, anyway. Maybe it was my internal way of eloping from the moment.

More from Beliefnet and our partners