BATTLE GROUND — “Life changing.” That’s how Hailey Landon describes the six hours she spends each week with six-year-old Asher Trigg and his family. Landon, 19, volunteers with the Son-Rise Program, which uses structured play to help children on the autism spectrum make sense of the larger world.
Twice a week, the Battle Ground resident drives to downtown Vancouver for breakfast with the Triggs. “Then I go in the room,” she says.
Taisha and Jesse Trigg have converted their elder son’s small bedroom into a playroom with a padded floor, and lots of books and toys. A two-way mirror allows them to monitor and then coach volunteers.
“He starts with ‘I want that snack,’” says Landon, “and points up to a snack. He always starts with that.”
But that’s the only constant. Sometimes Asher is very interactive. On those mornings, “I get lots of bright-eyed looks,” Landon says. “Lots of laughter. Lots of climb-ups — onto the windowsill, onto my back.”
Other days Asher is a little quieter. Then, the two of them lie on his giant stuffed bear reading books and singing songs.
And some days, Asher is not very interactive. He paces. Focuses on his favorite red and green pens. Does or says the same things over and over again. Then Landon joins him in whatever he’s doing.
Landon says those are the challenging days. “I’m wanting that interaction. But Son-Rise is about love and acceptance. When he’s low-key it challenges me to be better with Asher. And better in general.”
Most autism interventions focus on behavior modification. But Son-Rise sees autism not primarily as a behavioral deficit but as a relational deficit. The program focuses on entering the child’s world and developing a deeply-bonded relationship with him or her. Then, from that basis of relationship, volunteers invite the child into their world.
“My favorite parts are those little breakthrough moments,” says Landon. “When I do something funny and he laughs. And it’s just such a sweet, warm, funny little 6-year-old laugh.”
Landon says her favorite moment came recently.
“We were being a rocket ship, flying around the room, with him on my shoulders,’’ she said. “Just on and on. I’m sweating. He’s laughing. For 15 minutes, laughing the whole time.”
Landon says she thinks people would be surprised by Asher’s sense of humor. “He’s so funny! Really funny. He’s discovering his humor. He’s six, so it usually revolves around his bodily functions. But he says something, and you know he thinks he’s so funny. It’s a low-key day, then all of a sudden he’s cracking jokes.”
The changes in Asher have been breathtaking. He has begun laughing. Having conversations. Interacting with his parents and brother, Silas, 3.
But Landon says the changes in her are even more profound.
“It’s easy,” she says, “to get stuck in negativity. But you can always be more positive. It’s made me more grateful.
Landon says it’s helped her at Woodland Primary School, where she works as a teacher’s aide. “It’s made me more patient. Education today is so corrective. I’ve become so much more cognizant and aware of the kid. Not just assuming he’s being a brat.”
For Landon, the changes go on and on. She says it’s made her more connected to other people. “And It’s helped me roll with things. Taisha has helped me to not take things personally. It’s not about me. The other person could be having a bad day.”
Landon’s free time is full–reading, hiking, friends, travel. But the highlight for her is the time she spends with the Triggs. “They’re the coolest family I’ve ever met,” she says. “Taisha is Superwoman. A devoted mother, and an awesome woman. And Jesse’s awesome, too.”
Trigg has her own set of superlatives when she talks about Landon. “Hailey’s fantastic!” says Taisha. “She’s incredible.”
Trigg says Landon has helped Asher increase his interactive attention span by giving him lots of engaging choices. “‘Do you want me to read this book standing up or sitting down? In a loud voice or a soft voice? Do you want me to blow the bubbles fast or slow? Big or small?’”
Asher, she says, is starting to try all sorts of things out of his routine — blowing up balloons, playing catch, making up stories and songs. And, Trigg says, “this is totally due to what Hailey is doing, just by being that change first. She’s committed and eager to learn, and she cares about Asher. She’s incredible.”
And, listening to Landon, it’s clear that Asher is one of the most important people in her life. “With him everything is so upfront and apparent. Everything. We’re so fast-paced, and always zoning things out. Asher’s mind is so much more colorful than mine. To be living in that must be awesome. To Asher everything is so much more rich.”
“You go in thinking you’re doing this for Asher. But Asher and Taisha and Jesse are doing so much more for you,” Landon says. “Jesse and Taisha and Asher and Silas have changed my whole life. It’s definitely one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my 19 years.”`
Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun is a resident of Hockinson and a freelance reporter. She can be reached at email@example.com.