An Interview with Michael
Being, not heard
The image I still remember is of the lawn growing over the small, thin pieces of plastic identifying former Laconia State School residents. Parked cars on top of them. Lawn mowers plowing over them. This stuck with me, and haunts me.
As I thought about prejudice I brought together the idea of being ignored with the reality of not being able to verbally communicate, or not communicate effectively using the spoken word. This hits home as two of my three children experience this in their own lives.
Another person I live with also struggles desperately at times with knowing how to express feelings, thoughts, needs or ideas with words. So much of the quality of our lives depends on our ability to be understood, to communicate our needs and ultimately to be fulfilled as we connect with others. Much of our connecting involves using words, and expressing who we are and what we need through them.
I wanted to interview Michael Furlong, 48. A former Laconia resident, he has resided with the same two people for the past 25 years.
I explained the assignment to him: "I am here to be taught by you, to understand your experience with prejudice in your life. Also your frustrations, your successes, hope and dreams, what you like to do, the obstacles you face and most of all, what you would like to contribute to the world.
Michael is completely nonverbal and severely autistic, yet he does communicate his needs. If you watch and "listen," he will give you subtle cues, rapidly blinking after hearing something complicated yet interesting, showing that he's heard. He’ll smile or laugh at someone telling a funny joke or doing something humorous. Or he’ll take someone's arm toward a desired object or activity. He’ll also hit his face for “no” or “help,” or shake and sway his head back and forth to show he's thinking.
And Michael will give back what he's given. If it's fear you express around him he will experience that and become self-abusive, although that is becoming less frequent.
Mary Fitzpatrick, his housemate and friend for more than 25 years, a committed and ardent support, offered the verbal translation to Mike's communication during my time with him, as well as stories — good and bad — from years of this journey together.
Most of my questions needed to be of the “yes” or “no” variety. With support from Mary I was able to glimpse the various nuances to his face, which spoke volumes.
1. What is more frustrating for you as a person who cannot speak: Not being able to make your needs known or connecting with someone?
Michael: Via stories it was clear that the more frustrating aspect of his life was not being able to make connections with others. Mary tells me he picks up the phone when he wants to call a friend. If it's his parents, he takes their picture to her.
During his highly self-abusive stage he hosted a party in his home. There was a person there Mike wanted to approach and listen to. He courageously walked away from his support person and sat down next to this person. The person seemed to not understand what was happening. He made a great effort to connect with Michael, telling him stories, acting interested, but not knowing how to interact. Suddenly, Mike seemed to realize this person had no idea how to support him, so he began to become self-abusive. It was the beginning of Michael wanting to learn how to support himself and be able to engage with people he chose to interact with.
2. Do you feel good physically?
M: He blinked and swayed, but did not smile meaning he feels fair, but could be better.
3. Are you happy now?
M: He said he was fulfilled and happy, but he had no choice where to live. Mary said she wondered if given the choice would be have chosen her and this placement.
4. Do you have hobbies?
M: Yes, power tools, sanding-color choices, cooking and birding.
5. What about your experience with God, your beliefs? (He's Catholic)
M: When he first came to his current church, he had this experience: After Mike took communion looked at him with scorn as he went back to his pew, as if he shouldn't be allowed there. This has been extremely hard on him and Mary. Many times, Mike is not only seen to be irreverent, but he is laughing, showing how happy he is that he can take communion and that makes people give even more dirty looks. Instead of giving back dirty looks, Mary makes direct eye contact with people at the church and smiles showing that she forgives them for their not understanding and being afraid of what they don't understand, nor having an open heart to try to understand what causes these fears.
6. Do you have a dream?
M: Mary relayed that Mike had made it abundantly clear he wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail after reading about it. Mike does read, but has difficulty holding books, as his entire body is somewhat rigid. When bursitis of the hips was finally diagnosed after doing a lot of walking and training, the Appalachian Trail was out of the question. This has really disappointed him.
7. Do you have enough say in your day-to-day life, enough choices?
M: Blink (yes).
8. What about legislative action?
M: For 10 years, Mike attended various legislative sessions (Family Care Act and Action for Independence) when budget cuts were on the table for those coming out of Laconia and other items. Mike's presence did make a difference. At one session Mike became agitated and self-abusive in response to statement made by a state senator that clearly showed his lack of understanding and respect. Heads turned. To minimize the disruption Mike was helped to step out to regain his composure. Once calm, he wanted to return. This was repeated three more times. The legislators seemed to get it: he knew what they were saying and it was upsetting to him.
8. What do you want to be your contribution?
M: Mary relays that probably it would be changing hearts, teaching love. Words are not needed for that.
An example of this, changing a heart, I was told this story: At a different church they attended years ago, they encountered similar prejudicial treatment and fear of the unknown. But this time it seemed there was a job to do.
For years they noticed the same disheveled and homeless-looking men sitting at the back Sunday after Sunday. Year after year this man never took communion but witnessed Mike doing so. After three years the man came up to Mike and Mary, looking at them squarely, and after being seen finally going up for communion, said: "I just want to thank you for helping me see that it's OK for me to go up for communion."
Jeanne Haase is a 2012 IOD Leadership grad. A former technical writer, she is working with her Leadership Action Group on a documentary film, “Behind the Wall of Silence.” She homeschools her son with autism and does freelance writing, while attempting daily to neutralize all the testosterone in her home, living with four males, five if you count the dog. She can be contacted at email@example.com.