“Hi, I’m Tina Cohen-Chang. I’m here to report for work.”
Work, is at the Lima Autism Center, the best resource center for individuals with autism in Lima, Ohio.
Or at least, that’s what everyone says. Tina’s convinced they are right and that it’s where she will spend the most fulfilling years of her career. It’s much more modern and well-equipped than the small special needs daycare center she worked at previously. She adores kids, but she’s ready to step out of her comfort zone to work with the older ones, the ones who are still capable of contributing to society in their own little way.
Now, she’s about to contribute in her own little way too.
The receptionist adjusts her glasses and stares up at the Asian girl with brown streaks in her hair.
“Miss Sylvester’s expecting you. Door behind me.”
Tina draws in a deep breath. Time to make a good impression, Tina.
She raps on the door and upon hearing an assenting grunt, makes her way in, murmurs a “Good morning” and takes a seat. Sue Sylvester seems more interested in scribbling rather vehemently in a black book, however, so Tina has to clear her throat.
Sue looks up, a frown creasing across her face. “What do you want, Kimchi Lady?”
Good impression indeed. Her first day at work and she’s already experiencing discrimination from the head herself.
Tina smiles faintly. “Hi, I’m Tina Cohen-Chang, the new behavioral therapist. I – err – guess I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go or what I’m supposed to do for today.”
Sue snaps the book shut, startling her.
“Not just today, Panda Girl,” says Sue, standing up and grabbing a few files from her shelf. “The rest of your miserable existence here.”
Tina’s eyes widens.
“Can’t take a joke? Then don’t make up yourself like a geisha next time.” Sue smirks. “Follow me.”
Tina trails after Sue, slightly befuddled by how the woman has managed to insult a good number of East Asian communities within less than a minute.
Sue stops, points to an empty desk in the office and dumps the files on the table.
“That will be yours,” says Sue. “Mornings are administrative crap, so clear the stink out of them before your rotting incompetence kills everyone in the room.”
Tina notices a young woman next to her cubicle and mouths, “Hi,” but gets a rude stare in return. She is really beginning to regret applying for this job when Sue continues,
“Afternoons will comprise a two-hour session of assessing some of the individuals and working on some very basic skills. The following two hours, you will be assigned to a mentee, a special individual who requires more attention.” Sue waves one of the files at her. “You’re taking this one. It’s all basics inside here, so if you want to get used to him, you’d better find out more on your own. It’s part of your first year job assessment too.”
Tina reaches for the file, but Sue slams it down instead and points at another file labelled ‘REPORTS’.
“Then the last two hours of work will be writing the reports for your various cases. Is that understood?”
Tina fights the urge to stand at attention and salute; she just nods weakly.
“There’ll be staff on night shift taking over, so...” Sue points all over Tina’s desk. “Make sure you clear all that up before you leave.”
“Night shift? Wait, what...” But Sue has already walked off.
Tina turns to her cubicle neighbor, who is resolutely facing the computer as she says,
“Great way to show off how much you studied your ass off about the organization you’re applying to.”
It hits Tina two seconds later. Oh... there’s a dormitory here. Of course there will be night staff.
“You can drop that deer caught in the headlights look, they won’t get you to do night duty unless it’s really serious,” continues the girl, who is still not looking at her. “The people who stay overnight are pretty independent.”
Tina nods, but the girl can’t see her anyway. “Thanks for that. Uhh... I’m Tina.”
“Santana,” comes the swift, but curt reply. “Worst decision you have made in your life.”
Tina stares at her. “What?”
“To come here.”
Tina sinks into her seat. “It sure is feeling like it at the moment.”
“So why did you?” Santana’s eyes remains trained on her computer screen as she types vigorously.
“The same reason as you...” Tina’s gaze falls upon Santana’s name tag on her desk. SANTANA LOPEZ, BEHAVIORAL THERAPIST. “I hope.”
“The pay sucks, the people here are tough,” says Santana.
“But it’s a centre for those who have the capabilities to contribute,” argues Tina. “The ones who have really low-functioning autism and need full-time guidance are in the Rainbow Center.”
Santana snorts. “Rainbow. How stupid that they use a gay symbol for people with autism. People in power have no sense of differentiation. Well, whether you’re more productive or not doesn’t say anything about your behavior. More than half the people have behavioral issues of some kind and you’ll spend more time finding a hair lotion for your bald spots than easing a good drop of that potential out of them.”
As sucky as that sounds, Tina understands that. The adults tend to be less flexible compared to children especially if they had no therapy sessions before to guide them. It’s harder to change their habits and routines. But that’s why she came here – to challenge herself, to help them cross those obstacles and enable themselves to contribute to society.
“And I don’t mean just the participants here,” says Santana. “The staff too. Specifically, that woman Neanderthal.”
Tina wrinkles her nose. “Does she call you ‘Hispanic’?”
To Tina’s surprise, Santana laughs. “No, but I’m assuming she called you Asian. What did I tell you about people in power being unable to differentiate? It’s like there’s a gene deficiency with regards to that.”
“I should be offended, but I actually believe you.”
“No shit,” says Santana, and she twirls away from the computer to look at Tina. “Look here, lady, just a little reality check first. I think racial discrimination is the least of your problems. There are only two of us as behavioral therapists – there’s Emma Pillsbury, but she’s as good as a ghost ‘cos she’s such a germaphobe that she hides in the office pooping out stupid assessment criteria sheets instead of really working with the people. The other few are psychologists who think they can read minds just by staring blankly into people’s faces. So it falls on us to try to get these people ready for life. And with the kind of crappy resources this place has?” She waves her hand about. “Lima’s small, but really, it’s because they don’t give a damn. The old cook here who tries to teach home economics blows fire out of her mouth hotter than the stoves, it’s no wonder nobody wants to learn cooking. If I were you, I’d be busy trying to tread the papers enough to get by, and once you chalk up two years’ worth of basic credits, you can get the hell out of here and even beyond Lima.”
Tina is having a hard time trying to process all of that, but disillusionment is fast settling in and she doesn’t need that on her first day at work. She takes a deep breath again and concentrates on her desk. She puts the ‘REPORTS’ file away and takes the file beneath.
But she can’t resist looking back at Santana, who is back to furious typing. “So why did you come here?”
“Same reason as you.”
Tina still doesn’t understand, but drops the matter. She opens the file before her and stares at the picture of the young man whom she has been assigned. The individuals are rotated amongst the psychologists and therapists depending on their progress, but this one looked like it was going to be for quite the long-term.
Bespectacled, wheelchair-bound, same age as her. Diagnosed with high-functioning autism. Stays full-time at the dormitory. Transferred from an orphanage a year ago...
She is barely a minute into dissecting his profile when Santana twirls over for a peek.
“What’s with the cryptic reaction?” Tina raises an eyebrow.
“Nothing. You’re in for a ride, chica.”
This is certainly one of the most bizarre days ever. And it isn’t even ten o’clock yet.
Past lunch, Tina finds herself in a small whitewashed room with a small whiteboard, a couple of markers, a table littered with all kinds of assessment criteria forms (courtesy of Emma, she supposes) and visual cues. She places her own toolkit there, then puts on a bright smile as somebody knocks on the door.
In walks – no, struts – a girl in sunglasses, decked from head to toe in what is clearly designer wear (oh, what would Kurt say!) and lots of jewelry. She takes off her sunnies, flutters her eyes and sits down, looking expectantly at Tina.
“My name is Sugar Motta, I’m twenty-two this year. Anything important? I’m needed somewhere else. Very urgently,” she adds emphatically.
Tina gets up to close the door, slightly amused. Then she looks back at Sugar. “Hi, Sugar. I’m the new therapist, Tina.”
“Nice to meet you, but your eyes are too small. It makes it hard for me to make eye contact.”
Tina can’t help widening her eyes at that statement.
“That’s better.” Then Sugar seems to realize it wasn’t very appropriate. Her eyes widen too – then dull into an unapologetic stare. “Sorry, Asperger’s.”
Great sense of awareness, thinks Tina, as she scribbles on the assessment sheet. “No problem. Mm... can you tell me what activities are you involved with in here, Sugar?”
Sugar frowns. “The psychologists ask me that all the time. It’s boring. I work on fashion design, I’m great at it. You can check out the design shop for my works.”
They need to have a more efficient log system here so these poor people don’t have to repeat themselves! thinks Tina once again. “Wow, I’ll really have to check them out. Judging from what you’re wearing, they must be good.”
Instead of being flattered, Sugar just looks annoyed. “I just told you. I’m great at it.”
It turns out that Sugar is highly articulate and talented, and quite ready to go out into the working world, but still lacks subtlety in her articulation. Tina doesn’t want to be too harsh on her first try, but after a few rounds of conversation, Sugar gets bored, stands up and puts on her sunglasses. “I have to go. I need to finish my last batch of designs by the end of today and I can’t afford to spend so much time here.”
“Well, I just –” Tina began.
“Also?” Sugar tips the sunglasses down to her nose. “Not everybody here is stupid.”
“I never –”
Sugar slams the door after her.
Tina sighs. Sugar is right; the verbal practices can make them seem rather dull when clearly some of them, like Sugar, are able to process more critically. She makes a mental note to visit the design shop later – the centre helps to sell their participants’ artworks, handicrafts and other designed materials there, and Tina thinks it’s a brilliant idea.
The next person is Finn Hudson, whom Tina adores because he is such a gentle, innocent giant of a man and answers her questions slowly and politely. He owns an online repair shop in which people can request simple repairs for their items – they drop it off at the centre and he spends his time working on them. He clearly loves his work; his eyes shine when he talks about which nut and bolt goes which way. Tina knows nothing about such things, but she would gladly listen to him all day. He does not really maintain eye contact very well and his hands twitch on occasion, but his smile is warm and friendly. Finn thanks her for listening (what a gentleman!) and lumbers away.
The third individual proves challenging. Tina is very used to some kids with autism being touchy-feely, back at the daycare. She even likes that they hug and cling onto her because they are so sweet and innocent and it’s their way of expressing gratitude and affection.
But when it is a twenty-eight year-old man, it’s a different case.
When Jacob Ben Israel starts to caress her hand, she cannot help but jerk away and glare at him instinctively. She straightens out her expression at once, but Jacob looks hurt. She gently reminds him that touching is inappropriate, but very soon, his hand reaches out for her again, and she has to use visual cues to warn him. Unlike Sugar and Finn, Jacob needs what the Center terms a ‘handler’ (rather inappropriate name, Tina thinks), a guide of sorts who will ensure he goes about his daily routine. In Jacob’s case, his family has hired a domestic worker trained as a handler to follow him around, but she doesn’t interfere with the therapists’ session and goes for a break instead.
Jacob is a writer, and Tina realizes that his greatest problem is that he hardly ever opens his mouth – when he does, he stutters and babbles. No wonder he’s so handsy, she thinks and starts to think of ways to encourage his speech.
Working with adults is a bigger challenge than she thought, because their intellectual, physical and emotional capacities are of greater variance than that of children. She knows that her hardest task has yet to come – the individual she has been assigned for one-to-one therapy with. She has been told to broaden his interests, but from the file, she knows that there is more to him than just an obsession.
At 3.30 p.m., she finds her mentee seated in his wheelchair in Therapy Room No. 3, watching television very intently. He’s classified as independent despite his disability, so unlike Jacob, he goes about his routine on his own. Most of the time, however, he is noted to be in front of a screen (which probably also explains the thick spectacles). Tina knows that his obsession is musical theatre and likes to critique it, but she is still surprised to see him speaking rather vehemently at every movement of the actors on screen.
“The Jets shouldn’t be standing this way, it throws the whole symmetry off!”
“What’s with the lighting here? Even if it is 1960, they must have had good bulbs!”
“That dress is just terrible! It clashes with her hair! What were they thinking? And she’s singing “I Feel Pretty” with it, that’s absolutely atrocious irony.”
He certainly is articulate, thinks Tina.
He is completely oblivious to her presence, so she takes advantage of a pause in the sound to say,
But he doesn’t respond.
Switching off the T.V. is not an option. Tina knows from experience that it is not just incredibly rude, but very startling and confusing to just tune off the obsession of an individual with autism. He might even go into a frenzy, and given some of his previous reactions listed in the file, she is fairly sure he will react that way. Giving him visual cues are unlikely to help, because his eyes are so trained on the TV. She needs to distract him using his other senses since they are likely to be very sensitive too.
If he likes musical theatre, he will be fairly sensitive to a change in sound. Normal speech didn’t work, but she can’t try something too overwhelming either.
Tina decides to wait till “One Hand, One Heart” comes on before she starts to sing a soft harmony.
The reaction is instant. Arthur Abrams switches off the T.V., spins around and glares at her.
“Who are you?!” he demands.
“Tina,” she offers, slightly stunned and thrilled at the same time to have gotten his attention. “I’m your new –”
“Where’s Rachel?” He grits his teeth.
“Rachel?” Tina has no idea who that is. “Rachel is not here.”
That seems like a bad statement to make, for his hands curl into fists. Tina knows that is a warning sign and raises her hands up in an ‘It’s okay’ motion. She reinforces it by saying, “It’s okay. I’m here to help you. It’s okay.”
“I want Rachel,” he says, angrily. “Where is she?”
Tina thinks it’s horrible of Sue and the previous therapist who wrote the file report not to have warned her that Arthur has another obsession. This makes calming him down terribly difficult.
“I don’t know...”
“Does Rachel sing too?” she blurts, and wonders if he will follow her train of thought.
He does, surprisingly.
“Yes,” he says, his anger diminishing a little. “She does.”
“Do I sing well?” Tina asks, hopefully.
He stares at her. Then he frowns. “I... yes. You can harmonize.”
“Is it okay for me to harmonize?”
It takes a while, but eventually he says, “Yes.”
“You’re welcome,” he says, automatically. A trained social reaction, but at least he’s maintaining eye contact. That’s good. She notices he has very bright blue eyes behind those thick glasses. There’s a lot of potential in there.
“I’m Artie,” he says, the anger seeping back into his voice again. He wheels back to face the television.
No wonder he didn’t respond earlier.
He reaches for the remote control again, but Tina gets up and squats in front of him. “Okay, Artie. Shall we talk for a while? You may watch West Side Story later.” She makes sure not to use the words ‘I promise’, because it gets their hopes up.
“But I want to watch it now,” he argues.
“It’s the fighting scene, isn’t it?”
“Yes, the rumble. The Jets and the Sharks. Riff dies...”
“So does Bernardo.”
Artie looks at her contemplatively. “I’ve watched it eight hundred and twenty-two times. What about you?”
Competitive streak, she thinks amusedly. Then belatedly, eight hundred and twenty-two times??
"Five,” she admits. “I guess I lose.”
The edges of his lips quirk up slightly. “You lose.”
It’s these little things, the slightly positive reactions she eases out of negative beginnings, that really makes her love her job. It’s why she chose to join the special education sector, because their positive reactions are the most honest and remind her that there is so much goodness and happiness in the world to look forward to.
She is able to guide him back to the table where she has her toolkit. He is still looking at the West Side Story tape cover on his lap, so she carefully brings it up to the table so that his eye level is elevated.
“Where did Rachel go?” he asks, his voice now steadier.
Tina decides to go the less alarming route. “How did you get to know Rachel?”
“She was here before you.”
Oh. The previous therapist. That is why the ‘obsession’ with Rachel isn’t listed in the file. But why didn’t anybody prepare him for Rachel’s leave?
Guess I have to play the bad guy then.
“Rachel has gone to work somewhere else,” she replies, gently.
“I want to talk to her about Maria,” he says, in an annoyed tone. “There’s something important I need to tell her about Maria’s singing. And only she sings like Maria.”
Tina stares at her assessment sheets. She has to fill these in for her report later, but Artie doesn’t look like he’s interested in answering any questions today. Then she decides not to care and looks intently at Artie. “Do you sing like Tony?”
To her delight, his eyes light up. Then he shakes his head. “No.”
“But you know how to sing a West Side Story song?”
“Sing something for me.”
“There’s only ‘Something’s Coming’ and ‘Somewhere’,” he argues. “Pick one.”
Tina stifles a giggle. “‘Something’s Coming’, please.”
Artie has a rather nasally voice, but it’s somehow very pleasing to the ears. His eyes become a little dreamy, like he’s somewhere else as he sings. Tina knows this song is very challenging because it doesn’t follow a simple rhythm, but Artie surprisingly nails it. He doesn’t sing as clinically or didactically as some people do; he has the feel of it, and she finds it extremely rare and talented, even. But when Artie finishes, the vibrancy of his performance seeps out of him and his shoulders sag. The edges of his lips droop while his eyebrows knot together.
“I’m tired,” he announces. He makes to wheel away, but Tina puts out her hand. He stops.
“Do you know other musicals?” she asks, softly.
He frowns. “I only like West Side Story.”
“But have you watched others?”
He doesn’t reply. Tina tells him to wait for a while, and she goes to the disc collection by the side. Most of the collection are old films and musicals, but they are dusty. He certainly hasn’t browsed through the rest.
She picks out one and holds it out to Artie.
“Singin’... in... the... rain?” he reads, then shakes his head. “Rachel spoke of it before. But I didn’t want to watch it.”
“It’s a very good musical,” says Tina, brightly.
“But I don’t want to watch it!” Artie grips the tape on the table.
Tina figures she has to think of some proper visual procedural cues to coach Artie into accepting another musical, so for now, she nods and puts away Singin’ In The Rain. She has to assess him anyway, so she presses ‘play’ on the remote. Artie’s eyes light up again as he wheels himself to the exact spot in front of the television and begins to comment loudly on each of the movements. Tina tunes out most of his comments to focus on his physical movements and scribbles them down on her sheet. But towards the end, she does listen, and she is intrigued by how much he knows about musical and stage direction.
“The angle’s too low for this number,” he says, with a frown. “A headshot would have made it more exciting.”
He sounds like an adult when critiquing, she thinks, but whines like a five-year-old when he’s made to try something different. There is so much to learn, and so much to teach all at once.
Tina thinks this isn’t too bad for her first day after all.
When the clock hits five-thirty, Artie’s reaction is instant. He hits the ‘stop’ button, retrieves the tape and slots it back into the collection. Then he looks at Tina.
She wonders if he remembers her name as he wheels himself out of the therapy room.
Tina is making coffee in the pantry the next morning when she hears someone singing to himself in the office. Yesterday, she had to read so many things from Sue’s files that she hadn’t had time to go around introducing herself. She walks past Santana’s cubicle and finds a young man with way too much gel in his dark hair going through light vocal runs while photocopying something. Nobody seems bothered, perhaps because he really can sing very well.
“Hi,” says Tina, tentatively, and the man turns. Tina immediately finds him very good-looking, and oh wow, his eyes actually twinkle when he grins.
“Hi!” Twinkle Eyes says brightly. “Are you the new member of the psych team?”
“Yeah,” says Tina, slightly flustered. “I’m Tina.”
“Blaine,” he says, holding out a hand. His handshake is soft and warm, and Tina can’t help blushing. “I’m the music therapist.”
“Oh!” Tina thinks of Artie immediately. “Wow. That’s cool.”
She pauses as Blaine gives a soft chuckle, then continues,
“Say, you know... I have a – uhh – mentee who is really musically inclined. I’m trying to think of ways to broaden his musical interests. Any suggestions?” she asks lightly.
Blaine’s smile widens as he retrieves his papers from the photocopying machine. “Is it Artie? I’ve always thought I didn’t really have to do much with him because he’s already so talented.”
“But surely being so obsessed with one musical when you’re talented has its cons,” muses Tina. “I’m trying to introduce a new one to him, but I’m not sure how to do it without being too intrusive.”
“I haven’t met with Artie for years, ‘cos I’m actually working with the kids at the other end of the compound,” says Blaine. “Rachel has been trying to work on his other social aspects instead. I secretly think she enjoys his West Side Story obsession because she gets to perform for him.”
Tina has found out that they didn’t spend a lot of time preparing Artie for Rachel’s resignation because she left quite in a hurry, but the girl still remains quite an intriguing topic. Still, she leaves that for another day as Blaine continues, “I think you can try finding something more in common with West Side Story. Like you said, it’s not too nice to throw in something completely out of the blue. You can try singing a West Side Story song with a different feel or an element linked to another musical. Gradual introduction, you know?”
Tina breaks into a smile. “That’s a brilliant idea. I’ll see what I can do. Thanks so much, Blaine.”
“Naw, don’t be so formal,” says Blaine, with a charming wink. “But you can treat me to lunch one day.”
Tina is about to say, “Of course!” when Santana stands up and rolls her eyes. “Anderson, can you stop flirting with girls you can’t afford to upkeep?”
It’s a strange and possibly offensive statement to make when Blaine looks like he’s fairly loaded given his stylish clothes and slicked-back hair, but Blaine merely laughs it off.
“Shut up, Santana,” he says good-humouredly.
“And wipe that dopey look off your face, Cohen-Chang,” says Santana, and she looks positively amused now. “His hormones only interpret that as constipation.”
“Don’t be so mean –” Tina begins, but then Blaine laughs again and says, “I guess I can always count on you to be a warning sign, Santana.”
Tina stares at him. “Really?”
Blaine cocks his head to the side with an apologetic look.
Tina gasps as the heat rises up in her. “I’m so sorry!”
Santana snorts and sits back down. Blaine grins and shakes his head. “No offense taken, I – uhh – tend to give off wrong vibes. Hope you aren’t too –”
“No, no, don’t get me wrong,” Tina says immediately. “I’m completely fine with it. One of my best friends is gay too.”
Blaine arches an eyebrow. “Oh really? Don’t know too many gay boys in Lima...” He winks again. “You’ll have to introduce me to him one day.”
Tina laughs. Blaine has a way of making people feel comfortable, and she’s glad to have a colleague like him around.
Tina gets to meet a variety of individuals over the week.
In the staff room, the people (other than Sue) seem fairly nice. At least those that she’s gotten to know so far. Emma is a sweet lady with bright eyes, but she seems a little too eager to go back into her office to work on another line of those assessment criteria forms. Tina wishes she can learn more about autism psychology through her, but never really gets much time with her. Blaine goes straight to the kids’ section every morning, but makes it a point to accompany Tina and Santana out to lunch. There’s Will, a speech therapist with a smooth smile. Holly, the art and design specialist with a sunny personality (and a fairly loose tongue). Ken, a bumbling man with a sour face who helps with all the technicalities, from computers to drills to bulbs. Outside, there’s Shannon, the lunch lady with a big voice that scared the hell out of Tina the first day, but was found to have a big heart to match.
Then there’s Mike, the sports therapist, who’s young and athletic and handsome. When he winks at her, Tina is pretty sure she didn’t get the orientation wrong this time.
The mentees at the center prove to be even more colorful in personalities and types. Tina is particularly amused by a young lady called Brittany, who is obsessed with drawing unicorns and rainbows. She has quite the artistic talent, but is lower-functioning on the autism scale compared to most. Her eyes dart about everywhere except for Tina and talks to herself on occasion, but seems to answer questions fine when directed with visual cues. To Tina’s surprise, Brittany talks a lot about what she does with Santana (she is Santana’s mentee! Wow.) in terms of dancing, drawing and telling stories.
Her own mentee is far from being enthusiastic about her presence. Artie has never called her name once; he still rants about Rachel not being around every time she steps into Room No. 3. She has developed a set of visual cues to calm him down logically: “Rachel is no longer at Lima Autism Centre”, “It is okay. Tina is now here to help.”, “Tina likes West Side Story too!”
The visual cues are what she uses with the kids, but when Artie frowns and gives her an annoyed look, she realizes that he is a lot higher-functioning on the spectrum than she expected from his report. The cues just silence him, and then he’s back to reiterating the same statements while watching West Side Story. It’s even phrased to the T, which means he’s throwing his whole self into absorbing the whole show and that’s really far too unhealthy.
She’s tried to talk to him by commenting on his critiques, but they return less-than-favorable answers, mostly with a petulant, “I want Rachel. She knows.”
Tina thinks she should meet Rachel one day.
One day, Artie gets really angry.
She didn’t mean to make him so. He had decided not to watch West Side Story for the day (which explains how the number of times he has watched the show hasn’t actually snowballed to the thousands), but it only seemed to indicate that he was rather moody about something. She tried to talk to him and even reach out to initiate contact...
He is so angry that he reaches over and shoves her backwards. She hits her tailbone on the floor and winces.
She has to be strong, she has to be firm and calm, and show him that he needs to express his anger in an appropriate manner. Yet, when the tears spring to her eyes from the pain, she cannot help getting angry herself.
“You –” she begins, half-expecting that he will start shouting at her now that she’s so obviously frustrated.
But when he doesn’t say anything and wheels himself to face the wall in the corner, she realizes that she has hurt him.
She hadn’t meant to touch his legs. She didn’t realize he was still so sensitive about it. Yet, she should have known – he was very sensitive to touch as well and when he knew he was supposed to feel something but couldn’t, it must have struck him as something wrong.
She tries to speak to him, but his eyes have such a hardness in them that she backs away. So she sits at the table and waits. She stares at the assessment sheets before her and sadly writes down comments in the box for ‘Emotional Intensity’.
Artie is singing, very quietly. He’s singing “Something’s Coming”, but because his voice is so soft, he sounds like he is hiccupping to the quick beats in the middle.
Tina finds herself singing the harmony to the song as she writes.
Artie’s singing stops abruptly.
Tina looks up. He is still facing the wall.
Biting her lip, she lowers her head.
Her head shoots up again. Artie has turned around and is looking at her warily. But his lips are pressed together; he is waiting.
He wants me to sing.
So she sings “Somewhere”, light and clear. She makes sure to keep eye contact with him, and towards the end, she gets up and walks towards him.
When she finishes, she takes a bow, and he claps.
“That was lovely,” he says, and Tina finds herself staring at him in pleasant surprise. “Sing again.” He pauses. “Please.”
Tina’s not somebody who likes to show off. She’s easily embarrassed when people make her do things in front of them, even if it’s something that she likes, like singing. But with Artie, he seems to know exactly what he wants, and when he wants it, it’s because he likes it. She can’t help feeling thrilled by that.
So she sings again, but this time, she pulls an umbrella from her bag and opens it. Then she starts singing a more upbeat version of “Somewhere”.
It’s okay, just think of yourself as Mary Poppins.
When she finishes, she’s breathless from skipping around and smiling and singing all at once. Artie is sitting there staring at her thoughtfully.
“What do you think?” she asks, slightly hesitant now.
“That isn’t the way to sing it,” he says.
She shrugs. “Sometimes it’s good to change things a little.”
He shakes his head and looks annoyed. “I like Maria’s version better.”
Tina scrunches up her face. “So if I was a bit more emotional?”
“It’s the umbrella. It isn’t right.”
“I want the umbrella.” She can’t help the petulance in her voice, and almost giggles. Artie should know how he sounds like.
Artie frowns, but surprisingly relents. She sings again, this time more mellowed. He tells her not to sing too hard at the end of the stanzas – it’s supposed to retract a little. He demonstrates, and she is impressed. Then he chastises her for dancing so lightly at a part heavy with emotion.
Towards the end of their session, he tells her the umbrella still has to go, but she merely winks and starts packing up her things. He’s back to watchingWest Side Story on the TV, saying the same old things. Previously, Tina thought he might have picked those up from somebody, or somewhere, but now she understands that he really knows what he’s saying. That seems to uncoil one of the knots deep within her, and she can’t help smiling as she watches him for the rest of the session.
At night, curled up on her couch, she spends the night watching Gene Kelly dance around in the rain with the umbrella and pretends to critique his dance moves.
Friday afternoons are mass game sessions where the psychologists and therapists ‘play’ with the mentees to simulate interactions. Tina is excited because she hasn’t really seen everyone in a group setting yet. Santana warns her that it isn’t as fun as it seems, but she gaily laughs it off.
That is, until she realizes that Artie has no interest in playing and is sitting in a corner watching the circle of people.
Tina gets up from beside Sugar (who is immediately campaigning for her favorite game of ‘Murderer’, which Santana argues is too complicated for Brittany), and goes towards Artie. Emma is standing by the side looking helplessly at him.
“I’ve tried,” says Emma, wearily. “He just hates the crowd. He thinks they’re going to push him off the chair.”
“That’s why we seldom bring him out.” Emma sighs. “Occasionally, there’s the park, the supermarket. But he’s always making so many unwarranted comments that we’ve cut down his outdoor activities.”
That isn’t good.
“It’s okay,” says Tina. She looks at Artie. “Can I play with you then?”
He meets her gaze – still with that wary look he has every time she enters Room No. 3. “I don’t want to play anything. This is stupid.”
“At least get some fresh air?”
Tina takes hold of his chair handles, and when he doesn’t protest, she wheels him outside.
The sun is bright, but the wind is cool. Artie scrunches up his face at the brightness. “Seriously? Those games that they play inside are really lame. We are supposed to be doing productive things, not playing.”
You sure are productive, young man. “Mm,” Tina moves to face him. “I don’t know if this is lame, but I had fun playing with some friends of mine. It’s a bit like magic.”
Artie scoffs. “That’s ridiculous, you don’t look like a magician.”
Tina smiles at him knowingly. “I only need another person to play along. Hold on.”
Tina finds Blaine in the staff room trying to work out some scores for the kids during his later sessions. He looks at her in surprise when she enters. “Don’t you have mass games?”
“Do you know how to play Black Magic?” she asks, grinning. “You look like the kind of guy who would know.”
Blaine chuckles. “You’re lucky that I do. What’s up with that?”
Tina brings Blaine to Artie and tells him they are going to play Black Magic in which Tina will magically guess an object in their environment that Artie thinks of. Artie still thinks it’s stupid, but he whispers the object to Blaine anyway, who proceeds to stroke his chin and say,
“Hmm... is it the plant over there?”
Artie is about to speak, but then Tina presses her hand on his as she grins. “No.”
Artie stares at her. “How would you know? You don’t have telepathic skills.”
“Is it the noticeboard?” asks Blaine, nonchalantly tipping his head over to the pink board.
“This is strange,” says Artie. “You should be asking the questions while he answers them, since he knows the answer.”
“But I know the answer!” Tina winks at him.
“So why don’t you say it?”
“It takes time to read Blaine’s mind,” says Tina, in all seriousness.
“You can’t,” says Artie, empathically.
“Is it the poster over there?” Blaine points to a piece of black paper informing everyone of an upcoming workshop.
Artie frowns. “You don’t know anything!”
“Is it the doll on the table there? I think that’s Brittany’s by the way,” muses Blaine.
“Yes!” says Tina, shaking Artie’s hand. “Am I right?”
Artie is gaping. Then he blinks. “You said you know the answer. You have to be right.” Pause. “But how did you know?”
“I can read minds,” Tina insists.
“No, that’s not possible without any form of technology,” argues Artie.
“That’s the fun of the game, Artie,” says Blaine. “You have to find out how she knows.”
They play one more time – it only takes one more time! – before Artie announces, “The object before the answer is black in color!”
Tina and Blaine’s jaws drop.
“How did you guess so fast!” wails Tina. “It isn’t supposed to be so easy.”
“It’s easy,” says Artie.
“Well, at least you don’t think it’s lame,” says Tina, under her breath. Then she says aloud, “You have to guess this one now!”
She is thankful that Blaine knows all these little trick games that she learnt back in junior high. Both of them keep Artie occupied for the whole of mass games period, and Artie guesses them pretty quickly. He gets a bit stuck with “Around The World” when Blaine accidentally says ‘Indiana’ for ‘E’ and nobody realizes till the solution is out and Artie expresses his annoyance. Still, he doesn’t pout that much and seems genuinely interested.
When the bell rings, Blaine excuses himself while Tina bends down to take Artie’s hand once again. “So? Was that better than mass games?”
“It’s still silly.”
Tina sticks out her bottom lip.
“But it’s less crowded,” Artie admits. His thumb presses down onto her knuckles, and she realizes she has been gripping his hand. Then to her utmost surprise, the sides of his lips quirk up into a small smile. “Thank you.”
It’s the first time she has seen him smile, and she can’t help returning it with a wide grin. She ticks off her mental checklist as she takes the handles of his wheelchair.
She stills. Another first – the first time he has said her name. She slowly moves in front of him and can’t help staring. “Yes?”
He meets her gaze, but his lips are pressed tightly together.
Did she imagine it?
She gives him a faint smile, then goes back behind the chair to push him.
“You have soft hands.”
His comment is so sudden and soft – because he is facing away from her – that Tina thinks that she is still imagining it. She wheels him back to the mass games room, and after Emma gives a debrief, he wheels himself out of the room.
Tina stares after him, still trying to process what he had said earlier. She is shaken out of her reverie when Emma calls her to help carry some boxes to a therapy room and she does, but she doesn’t forget.
Over the next two weeks, Tina mostly focuses on developing conversational skills with Artie. Even though he is extremely articulate in his critiques and observations, he cannot express some of his emotions very well and uses physical movements instead. Just like how he had shoved Tina the other day.
She works on scenarios with him and suggests appropriate sentences for him to say. However, he finds this boring and gets sullen very quickly, just like Sugar.
“I know what I want to say. Why should I say what you want me to say?” he demands, folding his arms.
“Because what you say is very important, Artie. Words have meanings,” says Tina. “If I tell you ‘you are stupid’, how would you feel?”
Artie’s eyes flash in anger. “That’s horrible and untrue.”
“You know nothing about Singin’ In The Rain. So you are stupid.”
“That isn’t a logical conclusion at all!” Artie grips his armrests.
“Okay. What if I tell you ‘I think you can read more about the musical’?” asks Tina. She holds out a book that chronicles the making of the film Singin’ In The Rain.
Artie stares at the book, then back to her.
“It means I think you can understand more by reading this book. Just because you know less than me about Singin’ In The Rain doesn’t make you stupid.” Tina takes a deep breath as she watches Artie take that in. “So, just because someone knows less than you doesn’t make them stupid. They might understand something else better.”
Artie still looks rather unconvinced, so Tina writes the word ‘stupid’ on a piece of paper and cancels it out. Then she shows it to him. “I am stupid. I don’t know a lot about West Side Story. What can you tell me?”
“You’re –” he pauses, glaring at Tina. Then he stares down at the book that Tina has put onto his lap. He flips through it, and Tina has to place the paper she’s holding nearer to him to get his attention back.
“I can tell you more,” says Artie, finally. “Because you know less.”
Tina can’t help smiling brightly. “That’s it! But you can leave out the second part. If I told you ‘you know less’, you wouldn’t like it either.”
“It’s stupid –” Artie begins, then he sees Tina’s disapproving finger and makes an annoyed noise. “It’s tiring trying to make people feel better!”
“You’re right,” says Tina. “But you want people to make you feel better too, right?”
“They don’t make me feel better by telling me they know more about other things,” argues Artie.
He flips through the book again. This time, he gets lost in it, and Tina doesn’t distract him. She scribbles on the assessment sheet and smiles to herself.
She also starts to observe what he likes and doesn’t like. She notices that he wears his blue suspenders the most often and has more than one shade of blue checked shirt. So one day, she brings a big blue umbrella to the room.
Artie notices it immediately. He switches off the TV and stares at her as though she is stupid.
“It’s not raining,” he says.
Tina smiles. “I want to sing for you again.”
“It’s wrong to sing ‘Somewhere’ with that umbrella. I don’t know why you like it,” says Artie, huffily. “It just ruins the whole dynamic of the song. Rachel wouldn’t do that.”
The last bit stings, but Tina shakes it off. “If I sing a more upbeat song with it?”
When Artie doesn’t respond, she proceeds to sing “America” and waves the umbrella around her. She hopes she doesn’t look too ridiculous; she does have some dance background after all.
“America” is one of her favorite songs in West Side Story. For a while, she forgets that Artie is there and throws herself into singing and dancing. She totally lets loose and takes on the different girl and guy parts. When she is finished, Artie is still staring blankly at her, and she starts to feel very self-conscious.
“How was it?” she asks, softly.
His eyes trail to the umbrella, then he cocks his head to the side.
“Don’t cover your face with the umbrella. It’s a song filled with pride. The girls are proud to be in America, the guys are proud to be Puerto Rican.”
Tina is amazed. This is the first time she has heard the song be associated with pride and she thinks it makes a whole lot of sense. She repeats the routine, but this time with a bright, proud smile on her face. She still holds the umbrella, but higher up and behind her.
“Well?” She raises an eyebrow.
“That’s very good,” says Artie.
Tina’s cheeks are flushed from dancing, but it gets a lot hotter when Artie’s comments sink in. “Really? You truly think that?”
“It’s very nice, even with the umbrella,” he concedes. “But you should watch Anita again. I think you should watch her and feel how she sings and dances. There’s still a difference.”
“It’s okay to have some difference,” begins Tina, but Artie scowls and insists, “Watch.”
So she watches another round of West Side Story and pays close attention to Anita during “America”, but when the clock chimes again and Artie wheels out of the room, she wonders if she has really made progress with him.
This doubt lingers when she tries to give him tapes of other musicals in the next few sessions. She does it discreetly and he actually holds onto it and studies the synopses. But a short while later, he files the tapes back into the stack in the corner and continues watching his favorite musical. To make matters worse, he has been complaining about Rachel abandoning him of late.
“Does she hate me?” he demands. “Because I can’t walk? Because I can’t sing like she does? Tell me what she wants!”
And the worst bits are when he gets into a bad mood for some reason, glares at Tina and says, “You don’t sing like her. I don’t want to hear it.”
Tina doesn’t want to take it personally. She can’t. She has been trained to keep her emotions in check and she does it well with every other individual she has worked with. For some reason, Artie’s disapproval makes her sad; it reminds her of a teacher back in high school who told her that she had no talent whatsoever.
One day during lunch, Tina tells Blaine about what she has done so far with Artie, and Blaine makes an approving noise as he bites down on a cheeseburger.
“You know, people outside write them off so easily,” says Blaine, in between bites. “They think the smartest ones are also those who memorize the periodic table or the entire New York Metro lines right to the distance between each station. But the artistic ones? Whoo. They really blow my mind. Not negating the abilities of the others, but I’m seriously moved in the artistic regard. There used to be a girl here who could re-compose scores of soundtracks for all the silent films that she liked. They sounded beautiful, but nobody cared. I sent in the scores to a friend’s friend in Hollywood and nobody gave a shit about it because they thought the idea was ludicrous. Who the hell spends time penning scores to silent films that already had their own soundtracks to them, they said.”
“Where is she now?” asks Tina.
“She’s improved a lot and we don’t really have the recording equipment and stuff for her here, so I referred her to a good ol’ friend of mine in San Francisco who does short silent films. During the time she was here, we tried to coach her to work on stuff she had never seen before, by mixing up a new show in between her old ones. She didn’t really like it, but somehow she got hooked on one and started asking me for more.” Blaine smiles. “That was a good moment.”
“Wow, so she’s really out there in the world, isn’t she?”
“That’s what we’re all here for,” says Blaine. “Trying to develop their capabilities. I’m sowing the seeds in the kids, and you’re adding water and fertilizer, and sculpting for the adults.”
“You know, I think Artie has the potential to become a musical director.”
Blaine raises his thick eyebrows. “You’re not the first person who thinks that. Rachel said so too.”
There goes Rachel again.
“But he keeps saying the same old things,” Blaine continues. “It’s a little hard to ascertain if he really knows it or if he just downloaded it off some website or something...”
“No,” says Tina, rather vehemently, and Blaine looks at her in surprise. “Trust me. That’s because he’s watching the same old thing. Like I told you just now, he critiqued my performance and he made a lot of sense. He said some stuff that he has never said before.”
Blaine purses up his lips. “Hmm. That sounds good. One problem is, you need to work on Artie’s socializing skills first.”
Tina looks at him questioningly.
Blaine shrugs. “I don’t doubt his ability to direct technically, but judging from mass games, he doesn’t communicate very well with other people and that is the reason why he needs more special attention. He has so much potential but it can’t be harnessed until he can open up, and besides Rachel, the others have tried and there hasn’t been much result. As you know, a lot of artistic individuals with autism express themselves through their art, but a director’s slightly different; he needs to be able to express himself appropriately in order to gain people’s respect.”
“I know,” says Tina, with a sigh. “I’m still trying to think of a way to make him open up during mass games.”
“Easy does it, girl,” says Blaine, grinning. “Not too much pressure.”
“Do you think...” Tina pauses, then she narrows her eyes. “Do you think it’s possible if we inspire him a little? Like if we give him a related project to work on. Do you think it might work?”
Blaine returns the questioning look, and Tina just smiles.
The bell rings, and it’s time for the day staff to go home. The family members come and pick some of the mentees up; the rest have either gone back to their dormitories or are still working in the studios and workshops. Tina takes a peek into the tech workshop where Finn is diligently fixing a lamp and smiles faintly. At least somebody is trying his best.
On the contrary, Artie is simply not responding to her today. He even glared at her when she showed him a visual cue and she thinks he might even be regressing, which unsettles her more than anything. She has spent the last hour in the staff room agonizing over how to present her report without getting her head bitten off by Sue.
Tina jumps, then holds a hand to her chest as she laughs nervously. “Oh my God, don’t do that.”
Mike grins. “Sorry.” He peers through the window. “That your mentee?”
“Oh, nah,” says Tina. “Finn handles most things well on his own.”
“Sorry, I don’t really keep up to date with who’s with the other therapists...” Mike scratches the back of his head. “Finn was with Rachel, so I thought you took over her and subsequently, took over his case.”
Tina thinks for a bit, then says, “How long was Rachel here for?”
“A year? I didn’t really talk much to her,” says Mike.
If Rachel was in charge of Finn for most of the time, that means she didn’t take Artie for very long.
Tina’s next thought is: Did she leave because of him?
“...your mentee now?” Mike’s question tunes her back.
“Oh, uhh, Artie Abrams.”
Mike arches an eyebrow. “Oh.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” says Mike, with a perfectly charming smile. “Say, do you want to catch a bite? I could do with some company at the grill. Cravings.”
Tina cocks her head to the side, then smiles. “I’d love to.”
At the grill, Tina finds that Mike is a great conversationalist for somebody who seems a little shy every time she passes him by in school. He makes her laugh, he is a complete gentleman by pulling out her seat and noticing when her water needs a refill, he laughs at her poorly-attempted jokes... she feels really comfortable spending time with him.
Now Mike is grinning a little when Tina regales the embarrassing moment when she thought Blaine was flirting with her.
“He does that,” says Mike, sighing dramatically. “Rachel took it even worse, trust me. When she first came, we had a dinner and dance thingy, and they got a bit tipsy and you know...”
“Yep. That was one epic makeout.”
“Oh my God.” Tina bursts into giggles. “Does the poor man get to attract boys at all?”
“Well, when he finds one as out and proud as he is, I’m sure he will,” says Mike. “So apart from the gaffes in the staff room, any more blunders outside of it?”
“Oh...” Tina gives him a mock glare. Then she sobers a little. “Well. Yeah. I’m trying my best to help Artie progress a little from his musical obsession, but sometimes he... gets a little edgy.”
“Tell me more about that boy,” says Mike. “He’s never in my therapy class. Santana tells me they never manage to convince him to come.”
“Well, have you worked with paraplegics before?”
“No,” admits Mike. “But I can always work on the dude’s upper arms. Plus working the legs is supposed to help prevent dystrophy.”
“He doesn’t really like activity. There’s a physiotherapist that comes to see him every now and then apparently, so I don’t think dystrophy’s a big worry. He needs mood therapy more than physical therapy though,” says Tina, with a sigh. “And I’m supposed to provide that, but it’s more difficult than I thought. He’s responding less to my visual cues and gets irritated very easily. I keep telling myself that if I can handle the kids, I can handle the adults too, but...”
“Hey,” says Mike, gently, and reaches for her hand. “Don’t worry too much, okay?”
He pauses, then rubs his thumb over hers, sending tingles through her. “You have to tell yourself that you’re trying your best. That’s all that matters. Whatever else happens, it’s not under your control anymore. We can only do so much as therapists and psychologists. You understand?”
Tina understands. She understands that he is telling her not to get emotionally invested. She has to distance herself and set limits for what she can accomplish with Artie.
But something tells her she’s not at that limit yet.