Recently three of Peter’s favorite therapists left his school to move on to other employment. They had all been on Peter’s team for some time, and it was sad to see them go. One of them sent me a personal text to actually apologize for having to leave Peter. “Pete made me grow as a person and as a therapist,” he wrote. “He is a sweet boy who just needs someone who knows him well and is willing to take that extra mile with him while being a friend and a teacher. I hope that I have been that for him.”
It choked me up. I’m not gonna lie. A few weeks later I asked one of them if he could babysit for Peter. This is the text conversation:
THERAPIST: I’d love to! I’m so excited to see the Rock Star!
ME: He will be happy to see you!
THERAPIST: I was talking to (the other therapist) and was telling him how excited I was! And he said he is so, so jealous! Said he wants to come and say hi! Haha.
ME: He can come too if he wants!
THERAPIST: You just made his life!
So they both came to babysit and then refused money when I tried to pay them. These two broke guys, who only wanted to hang out with their “Rock Star” because they missed him.
These guys were line therapists in Peter’s ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) program. Line therapists, also called Behavioral Therapists, are the ones who spend the most one-on-one time with a child in ABA therapy. They do all the “grunt work,” and they put in many long hours per week. Due to the nature of the clients they work with, they often have it hard. They get bitten and scratched and hit and they have their glasses broken. They have to deal with pee and poop and vomit on a daily basis. They are right there when meltdowns happen and when aggressive behaviors occur.
They are also, sadly, the lowest on the totem pole, meaning they get paid next to nothing and often don’t receive benefits. Most line therapists, at least in S.C., could make more money taking orders at McDonald’s.
It’s no wonder the burnout and turnover rate for these jobs is so high. Altruism can’t put food on the table or pay medical bills. These great people stick with it as long as they can, but then they leave. And kids like Peter pay the ultimate price.
It’s not fair. These are people who feel driven in their hearts to work with children who have autism. They choose to do this work. As a parent, I do my best with my ONE special needs child, but ultimately I didn’t have a choice in the matter. These people do, and still they make that choice.
It takes a special person to choose to work with special needs kids. Peter has worked with over 40 different therapists and special needs workers over the years since his diagnosis: early interventionists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, ABA therapists, special needs teachers and assistants, special needs nurses and doctors. Though some did their jobs better than others, I can say with certainty that every one of them has truly cared for Peter and his well-being, and every one of them has been devoted to his betterment. They had unfailing energy and dedication, and the enthusiasm for their work was always evident.
Yes, they may call Peter a Rock Star.
But it is these people – these often forgotten Angels – who are the true Rock Stars!
(Peter playing with therapists)