One day, late last year, in a counseling staff meeting, our director looked over to me and said, “We have a referral for a client who is non-verbal. He is interested in art therapy, do you want this case?” I’m generally pretty excited about new challenges and said “Yes” almost immediately.
At the intake, I discovered that in addition to the non-verbal nature of my client’s situation he also had mobility issues and required assistance throughout his day. While making several strategic adjustments to the intake process to accommodate my client, I became very aware that I had unwittingly stepped into an unconventional counseling situation.
Although I worried, in those first few minutes, that nothing in my training had prepared me for this client, I returned quickly to the one piece of information that informs my practice every day: Attunement. For me, the fastest way to attunement is the eyes. So I looked up from my scramble of intake documents, found his eyes, and shared a silent and intentional exchange.
His eyes were alive with history, passion, and connection. From there, we have been able to create solid treatment goals, make clear and consistent progress toward those goals, and develop a strong working relationship. Although the eye contact has been the ongoing foothold in our work, we continually learn from each other additional ways to communicate.
When necessary, to allow him to express a full range of emotion, I offer myself as a puppet so that he can dictate what his perfect physical tantrum might look like. I have invited his assistant to behave as he might and actually help him storm out of a session when I am confronting his distress.
I have treated him as the teen that he is and normalized his developing sense of autonomy and differentiation, even while he is dependent on others. Sometimes, I have merely pointed out the oppressive nature of his situation and given him the chance to grieve the hard effort it takes for him every day.
For me, working with this client reminds me of how little is needed for humans to connect. Words aside, I know when I’m off base because of the eye roll and I know when I’m on track because of the glimmer that sets his eyes alight.
I am a better clinician, and likely a better human, because of my work with him and I’ve told him so!