Faced by six people forming a horseshoe shape as an interview panel as they fire questions at me from all angles (to which I think I am managing to give suitable replies) comes the ‘killer’ question. What happens if the people you support are not making progress? (How would you feel?)
I am being interviewed for the role of a Community Support Team Leader, my first appointment of my second career following 24 years in the Army.
Thanks to my youngest daughter Bettina, who copes with a learning disability & autism, this question and similar ones are not particularly difficult for me as Bettina is never far from my thoughts and I only need to picture her to find my answer(s).
What happens if the person you support is not making progress? At the time of this interview, Bettina had not started to use verbal communication and often struggled to communicate how she was feeling and using behaviours instead to get her message across.
Fast forward 25 years later to ‘Love and Friendship’ and Bettina has become frustrated as there is something missing from her magazine, and she has torn it out of frustration (we can all identify with that!). After cooling down, Bettina approaches Joyce (mum) with the ripped magazine and hands it to her for repair. Bettina says (sheepishly), “Love and Friendship”. We had not heard her use this phrase before and it is yet another occasion when Bettina shares a window into how she is thinking. This is another occasion of how Bettina is ‘always achieving’.
What does ‘always achieving’ look like for Bettina?
- Practicing sentences and phrases in her room. Verbal communication is a constant challenge for Bettina, so being able to articulate how she is feeling and being understood with her message being acted upon gives her great delight and the confidence to try even harder.
- Trying something new and then doubling down on the activity once ‘B’ has successfully achieved it. With courage and perseverance Bettina will try something new, likely an activity, and it is always a wonderful surprise when Bettina achieves something for the first time. Once achieved, Bettina will endeavour to perfect this activity for herself.
- Completing a Task. “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” William James – readers acquainted with autism will know how important this is to a person who copes with this condition.
- Being Independent and taking responsibility. The important people in Bettina’s life will always look to help Bettina rather than do everything for her. For example, once Bettina worked out how to use the car seat belt, you would likely be pushed away if you tried to help her in future. Bettina always takes charge of car’s stereo system – there are some downsides to her taking responsibility – so I rarely get to choose my music when she is onboard!
- Forming relationships. I came across a YouTube video from Bettina’s former school (Market Field School in Elmstead Market near Colchester in the UK) Bettina started there as a 5-year-old and left at 16 years of age. In the video the Head Teacher, Gary Smith, talks about the school moving to new premises and reflects on his memories before the current building is closed. We were overjoyed as a family to hear that one of those memories was of Bettina and what that memory meant to him. Bettina left the school 18 years ago! The memory had significance and left an impact. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gB71K1XLl_w Bettina’s relationship with Gary and her teachers helped accelerate her development. The relationships they formed with each other are enduring.
What happens if the people you support are not making progress?
- Change the environment. I believe this is the same for everyone. During my army career a different posting often accelerated my progress – possibly due to a change in environment or people. In this career, supporting adults with a learning disability, the change I saw in people previously living in the NHS Victorian institution, progressing to supported living, was astounding.
- Reflect on your role in helping a person to progress – what could you do ? This is something I have done consistently with Bettina and whilst supporting people with a learning disability. Could I have done something differently? For example, when Bettina and I went to the cinema the first time. I still regret not breaking this new activity down into stages – it was my fault she became distressed when the ‘house lights’ went down.
- Reflect on your communication style – is it right for the person you support? Too loud? Too much eye contact? Talking too fast? Bettina prefers mild-mannered and softly spoken people who have positive body language. I have been lucky because Joyce regularly gives me feedback on how I communicate, and I recommend finding a ‘critical friend’ who will give you feedback.
- Allowing the person time and space – not everyone can go at your pace. Bettina has exceeded our dreams and aspirations for her, and we believe it is because we have been super patient, knowing we need to go at her pace and never losing faith in her will to succeed. We are in it for the long haul.
- Don’t measure someone’s progress by your own standard or understanding of what progress means. Bettina’s family have always been astounded by how she has progressed. Although not particularly significant to people outside of her circle, they are of huge significance to us and Bettina.
Love and Friendship
If I could summarise Bettina’s propensity for always achieving, it would be to borrow Bettina’s phrase ‘Love and Friendship’. When you give Love and Friendship, and you have Love and Friendship, you will flourish.